Being driven to a mysterious location, in the dark of night with a sleep shade over my eyes, made me feel like I was being kidnapped by terrorists meaning to do me harm. That couldn’t be further from the truth though; I was a willing participant in this secretive operation.
Allow me to backtrack a bit and explain.
My name is Bob Burns, (yes, my mother loved the poet and named me after him). I’m a middle aged guy who recently got through his third divorce, and made the decision that I needed to see a counselor before taking another shot at romance. All of my relationships with women seemed to start off great, but then slowly decline after a year or two. Since the only common denominator in all my past relationships is me, I figured that I must be the source of my own problems.
I lucked out and found a really good therapist on my first try. Dr. Bascom is an amazing person, and probably the most careful listener I have ever encountered. She picks up on every nuance, or hesitation in my dialog with her. I thought it would drive me nuts at first, her pausing me mid-speech to ask “what’s going on with you right now?” But every time it actually revealed something I was trying to skip past. Whether I knew I was doing it, or not.
As we combed through my past relationships with women, starting back in my teenaged years, I began to see a pattern emerge. I needed to be in a relationship with a woman to be able to feel worthy. My own self-worth was based upon my ability to attract and form an intimate relationship with a woman. Of course I had never been aware of it, at least nothing like I was after seeing it like this in counseling. To her credit, Dr. Bascom didn’t minimize it either, but rather said I really needed to get in touch with whatever it was in me that made this so important.
That was a tough assignment as it turns out. I did not have a bad relationship with my mother when I was young. Quite the opposite actually, we had a great relationship and I only have the fondest memories of her. In fact, over the next few sessions we explored this almost exclusively, but found no ‘smoking gun’ that might have triggered this behavior. Dr. Bascom asked me if I was open to hearing a more ‘eclectic’ theory. Of course, I was indeed.
“Bob, I’ve been a therapist for almost 30 years.” She told me. “I usually can tell when a patient is holding back something important, even if it’s completely involuntary on their part. But with you, I don’t get that feeling. You’ve been amazingly open, and even courageous in your willingness to look into yourself, your past, and confront what you’ve found there. I find your situation to be unusual in one important way too; you’re not a multi-partner person. By that I mean you’re not collecting sexual partners in order to fulfill some idea of what you think it means to be a man. When you’re in a committed relationship you seem to stay there, and stick with it. Yet, for this issue we’ve found nothing that leads me to believe that your self-esteem, being tied up with your relationships, stems from some trauma in your past. I find myself entertaining the idea that this is more of a spiritual predisposition.”
We’d spoken of spiritual matters in past sessions, so I already knew that she and I believed in fairly similar concepts. We definitely felt the same about traditional religion, which was that we both rejected it completely. Not so much their beliefs about God, or the afterlife, but more of the dogma and ceremony that accompanies so many churches. We both believed in reincarnation, and the idea that we’re all here living out our lives in order to learn and become more perfect souls. Each new life having a list of lessons to be learned through our life experiences, and choices we make.
“I think part of your soul’s lesson plan here is to come to a new understanding about women, and female energy. You’re chasing after that energy, and using its approval to feel good about who you are as a man. No matter the cause of that, we both know it isn’t a healthy mental state to be in. Your self-esteem shouldn’t be based on the acceptance and approval of others. It’s always bound to be let down at some point when your relationship changes. I have an idea that just may help, but it’s rather unusual and you’ll have to be willing to give it a try. There’s a remote retreat I know about that I think may help you. It’s primarily, well, almost exclusively a women’s retreat, but they have accepted a man there on rare occasion. I am friends with the founder/director there, and I believe if I explain this situation to her, she may make an exception for you. Are you willing to try this?”
“Well, it sounds interesting, but I do have a couple of concerns.” I said. “I am a little confused about how staying at a retreat for all woman is going to help resolve my issue? Isn’t it like sending an alcoholic to bartending school?”
“Hardly.” She said with a hint of a smile. “Firstly, you’re not some sex addict that uses or mistreats women. You have a spiritual issue that’s tied up with the feminine essence, and immersing yourself in an environment of all women may just be the key to triggering the insight you need to figure this out. Ascilla Azure is the director of Athena’s Haven. She founded the retreat about twenty five years ago, far up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. It serves as a safe haven for women to stay at while they process their own issues. From abuse, both physical and sexual, to more emotional or spiritual issues that need sorting out. The exact location is confidential, and is only revealed to the client after careful vetting. As a man, there’s a good chance I will have to drive you there, and you may even be required to have your eyes covered once we get close.”
“Seriously?” I asked with obvious surprise. “It sounds more like a CIA covert operation than a women’s retreat. Are you positive I am going to be welcome there?”
“Yes, absolutely. Ascilla is one of the most spiritually advanced people I have ever met. She’s what I call an Old Soul, for lack of better words. If she approves you staying, everyone there will respect that and treat you well. My advice to you is that you engage the other guests as often as possible. Most really don’t mind you asking what it is that brought them there. I have a feeling that hearing their stories may start to shed some light on your individual quest.”
Clearly Dr. Bascom held considerable sway with Ascilla Azure. I was approved in a matter of days, and arrangements were made for my stay at Athena’s Haven. Just as she’d said, they asked Dr. Bascom to drive me there, at night, and at a designated spot, have me don a sleep shade over my eyes. These were some very careful people, but I respected that. I guessed that there were probably some women there who had escaped a violent partner, and truly did not want to be found.
On the drive there I asked Dr. Bascom if she could tell me more about the place. I was very curious when she first told me about it, and now was even more so after being instructed to bring nothing with me except toothbrush and toiletries. I was also curious about how she knew Ascilla Azure.
“I stayed there for a month, about fifteen years ago. One of my peers first told me about it, and since I had just come out of an ugly divorce, I thought I could use some time away from everything. When I met Ascilla, she had that stare that was like someone looking directly into your soul, and understanding everything you are, and everything you’ve ever done. Like an eternal mother looking at one of her children and knowing who they are, and loving everything about them. I had never felt such complete acceptance in my entire life. I think I cried off and on my entire first day there.”
“What do you do there all day?” I asked. “I’m hoping it’s not like a monastery and I’ll have to be silent, do chores and pray all day.”
“Oh gosh no! It’s a retreat, Bob. It’s got a fair amount of organization to it, any place like it has to, but, it’s geared around social interaction and groups of people talking and sharing. The permanent staff is there mostly to facilitate the discussions, and focus people on themselves. No sarcasm, judgments or real negativity is allowed. You will encounter all kinds of women there, Bob. You’ll meet women who are younger, older, straight, gay, asexual, bold, timid, and so many more. I can’t describe everything to you, you’ll just have to see for yourself once there. By the way, now is a good time for you to put the night shade on too.”
I wasn’t even there yet and already I’d made a self-discovery; riding in a car at night, blindfolded, makes me unbelievably nauseous. I had to roll my window down and let in the cool night air to keep from ruining the nice leather upholstery of her car.
I have no idea what time it was when we finally arrived, but I knew it was well past when I usually go to bed and I was exhausted. Dr. Bascom allowed me to remove the night shade as soon as we pulled up to the front of the building. I was somewhat surprised to see it was a large ranch-style building that could have easily passed for an expensive mountain home. We were met by a young woman wearing a white kaftan and sandals. Sylvia was one of the permanent staff here, and although she wasn’t here back when Dr. Bascom was, she still greeted her as warmly as if she had been. I offered my hand when I was introduced, but it was stepped past in favor of a nice hug.
Sylvia led us inside, while explaining that because of the hour everyone else was sleeping. The room I was going to be staying in wasn’t quite ready for me, so she showed me to a large sunken living room with four long, low-back couches that faced each other to form a square. My guess was that it’s for large group meetings or sessions. She had already put a blanket and a pillow on one of the couches, and told me to go ahead and lie down if I felt tired. She and Dr. Bascom disappeared into a side office, and I did just as she had suggested. I was beyond tired and ready for some sleep. I removed my shoes and set them on the small bag I had brought with me. I was asleep in seconds, and I don’t even remember dreaming.
I have no idea how much time had passed, but I became aware of the murmur of voices around me, and movement. I could feel someone stroking my cheek with the back of their hand. As I slowly opened my eyes and tried to orient myself, I was almost sure this was actually a dream after all. The other couches around me were occupied by about twenty women of all ages, races, shapes and sizes, and most of whom were completely nude.
As I gathered my wits, I looked up to see who was touching my face. My eyes met two very beautiful green eyes, looking right back at me. Long dark hair framed a lovely face that bore a Mona Lisa smile.
“Good morning Bob, I’m Ascilla Azure, welcome to Athena’s Haven.”
She was wearing a similar white kaftan to the one Sylvia had on last night. A thin white cotton material that buttoned up the front. I couldn’t really guess at her age, she was one of those people that just didn’t show age like the rest of us do. She could have been 35, and she could have been 45, I just couldn’t tell. As I sat up, she steadied my shoulders until I was upright, and facing the group. Then, quite unexpectedly she threw her legs over the back of the couch, and slid down behind me so I was almost in her lap. She put her arms under mine, and hugged me from behind, not too tightly, but sincerely and warmly.
“Everyone please welcome Bob.” She said to the women there. But, before they actually recited anything in union, she went on. “And, Bob, please know you are truly welcomed here. You are not an oddity, you are not a stranger, you are one of us.”
The other women all smiled and greeted me, not in unison, but each in their own way. Several smiles, many waves, some ‘hellos’ and ‘welcomes’. Azure never let up on the hug she was giving me, I was pulled back into her chest, and could feel the warmth of her breasts on my back. She had moved her legs around me and crossed her heels in my lap, then began to slowly rock me left and right, not hard, just a slow steady movement.
“Bob, I want you to know you’re loved here. I want you to know you’re accepted here Bob, just as you are. You are loved, we love you Bob, I love you Bob…” She said quietly into my right ear.
Just then, the others began to say the same thing. Not loudly, and not all at once ether. I didn’t know what to think at first, my mind was reeling and I felt awkward and exposed. But, with Azure’s arms around me, coupled with her voice – the voices of the others – all so sincere and meaningful. I broke down sobbing like a child, and she just held me, continued to rock me and repeat her statement of love. It was powerful, and it was overwhelming too. But, most of all, it was real, genuine love. I could feel it to my core, more love and acceptance than I had ever felt before in my life.
As my tears began to subside, I noticed the other women begin to stand and leave the room, one by one. Even Ascilla had stopped speaking, and was just holding on to me and letting the moment happen naturally. When the last person had left, Ascilla deftly slid out from behind me, and moved to my right, facing me. I had managed to pull myself together, and I smiled as I saw her face again.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions Bob, but they don’t have to all be asked right now. I want you to stay in the moment if you can, and breathe in the feelings you were experiencing. Don’t wipe them away like tears, but let them resonate in you.” She said as she placed the palm of her right hand over my heart, and left it there.
I just stared into her eyes, the kindest eyes I have ever seen. If they truly are the windows to the soul, then her soul was alive with light and love.
“As you’re staying in your feelings, let me tell you about Athena’s Haven.” She said. “I wanted this to be a place of love, acceptance and safety for women to come to. I knew so many women that were suffering in one way or another – whether at someone’s hands, words, or even society’s expectations that were heaped upon them. I mean no offense to you when I say that it’s still a male dominated society Bob, and many women are very sensitive to that. It’s not a good feeling to be constantly reminded that you’re in the ‘Second Class’ and don’t have a ticket to get in to the First Class.”
“I felt that women needed a place to come to where they were completely in charge, and totally in power. I just wanted to create a small oasis where they could find some relief from the everyday pressures of our current society. But I also dreamt of a place of love and trust, of insight and honesty for all who came here. I worked very hard on all of it, and I like to think I have achieved my goals with this haven. I am very careful about who comes here, and even more so about who I ask to stay on and become staff. I want everyone who passes through our doors to have a loving and healing experience.”
“When I finally decided on this location, I had to spend a couple of years fund raising to be able to buy, and build here. My parents, Patrick and Tere lived on the property in a trailer for almost two years, supervising the work, and making sure it was done the way I had planned it. My father would help out where he could, and my mother made sure all the workers were well fed. They were so amazing, I owe them so much more than I can repay. But, they say they’re just happy seeing the work we do here.”
“Bob, now I want you to think of your two most important questions, and ask them. I don’t mean to limit you for no reason, I just want you to relax and organize your questions. See which ones come to the top of the list.”
That was tougher than it sounded at first. I had all kinds of trivial questions like Where’s my room? Or when and where do we eat? But, I understood her perfectly, she wanted me to reach deeper that physical or organizational questions.
“I assume Dr. Bascom filled you in on everything, so I’m just going to cut to the chase; How is being here going to resolve the issue I’ve had with women my whole life?” I asked her.
“Bob, I truly wish I had a simple and compact answer to give you right here and now, but I don’t. You’re going to have to trust in the experience of being here, and let things unfold as they will. I do have answers, but not for questions so great as that one.” She said, smiling at me.
“Well, okay, let me think a second…” I was stalling. “Alright, I have one; Um, why are so many women not wearing clothes? And, even the ones that are wearing something, well it’s just barely anything at all.”
The smile faded from her face, and I was sure I’d crossed some boundary with her. Maybe I was supposed to have pretended I didn’t notice the nudity, but I don’t think I could have gotten away with that for very long. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to ask about it even if I did notice it.
“Bob, once again I ask you to indulge me on this answer. In our Western society, and in many others as well, a woman’s body is always under scrutiny. She’s constantly evaluated and judged by so many other people, and for every day of her life. It’s not just all from men though, it’s also families, friends, other women, strangers of all types, doctors, politicians, and more. But maybe worst of all is the self-evaluation that goes on inside our own minds. We begin absorbing messages about how we should look from a very young age, Bob. From the moment you put a little girl down in front of the television, or let her see a magazine or movie, she’s already bombarded by expectations and judgments about a woman’s body.
“From Hips to hair, weight to her walk, a woman is always being observed and judged, and it’s overwhelming to many of us. I’m sorry to say Bob, most men just don’t understand it either. Even men who think of themselves as enlightened can still be seen observing a woman’s butt or boobs as she passes by them. It’s a pressure that drives many women to extremes too. With eating disorders, depression, unnecessary surgeries, painful shoes or clothing, and so many other affects.”
“I wanted Athena’s Haven to be a place of no judgment, especially on the physical body. So, we have found that being lightly dressed, or undressed helps all of us see past the body. No high heels, no fancy dresses, no exotic lingerie or other traps that we use to hide ourselves. That’s why we told you to bring nothing but your toiletries and any health items you need. We provide you with something to wear, or you can wear nothing at all if you choose.”
“I hope you will just be comfortable here Bob. I believe that Sylvia is ready to show you to your room now, and she will also give you a quick tour so you can see where everything is. I’ll be seeing you later today, so until then, just relax, look around, and meet people. There’s always staff around to guide you, or answer more questions. Remember, you’re loved Bob, very loved. And, I am so glad you’re here.”
She stood, turned and walked away, and I remained seated for a minute thinking about all she’d said. I could already tell this was going to be a lot tougher in a way than I had thought. Amazing probably, but tough too. I stood up and folded the blanked I had used, and stacked the pillow on top of it. Sylvia showed up two second later to take me around the place.
It turned out to be so much bigger than I thought when I first saw it. There were three floors and a basement in the main building itself. It had two long wings of rooms that spread out in a V shape from the back of the main building. Sylvia said they could have as many as 40 guests at a time, but usually tried to keep it to about 25 if possible. Almost everything was painted white around here too. The rooms, the hallways, and even the floors were all white. The couches we had all been on, and the carpet between them, all white. I made a mental note to ask about that.
Through a window I saw a couple of outbuildings, Sylvia said they used them for small groups that wanted seclusion, and one doubled as a sauna too. In the basement of the main building was a large library, well stocked with books and journals. There were media rooms with big screen monitors, and a couple of computer stations as well. There was a row of small private rooms along one wall, furnished with either comfortable chairs, or small couches inside. Private reading rooms I was told.
When we got back upstairs, we went down the West hallway and Sylvia showed me a huge kitchen and dining room that looked like a set from a TV cooking show. She took me in to get something quick to eat since it was already mid-morning and past the normal breakfast time. I picked out a blueberry muffin and we were on our way again. Down near the very end of the hallway was my room.
It reminded my of my dorm room in college. Simple and spartan, but functional as well. Sylvia told me to get comfortable and make myself at home. My bag was already on the bed, as were a pair of white cotton shorts and a matching shirt. I presumed this was my wardrobe for my stay here. I thanked her for the tour, and closed the door. I really needed to use the bathroom, have a shower, and change clothes. Some things were just going to happen in private, I thought.
After a hot shower and a shave, I was more than a bit shocked to see the clothes I’d arrived in were gone off of the bed where I’d left them. I guess the dress code was kind of mandatory in a way. I looked in the small chest there hoping to find some underwear, but it was nearly empty. Just some pens, and paper to write on. I put on the shorts and felt a little self conscious about the semi transparency of the material. I looked at myself and could definitely tell not much was left to the imagination. The shirt was on the long side, so it helped a little, but I could tell I was going to have to face my own body issues. If the women could do it, then so could I. I just had to trust that they were not judging me either.
I did as Ascilla instructed and wandered and explored both the interior and exterior of the place. The outdoor area was very beautiful, tall pines and Manzanita bushes everywhere. It was a beautiful and natural contrast to the stark interior of the retreat. I only encountered one other guest outside, and she was sitting under a tree and reading.
I sat at a picnic table, under some different trees, to just be alone and think. The mornings welcome session was still echoing in my mind, and I wasn’t sure why I had reacted so emotionally. I suppose the overall feeling of acceptance and love was just more than I could handle all at once. But, maybe it was more than that, more than just what was being said. Was it acceptance I was really looking for this whole time? Were all of these failed past relationships just attempts to feel some level of acceptance from women? If it was true, I still didn’t know why – and that’s what I really needed to figured out.
Lost in thought for longer than I had intended, by the time I got back inside people were gathering for dinner. The food was set out buffet style, so I got in line and just tried to do what I saw everyone else doing. I was behind a young woman who was amongst the ones that chose to forgo clothing. I concentrated on the back of her head so I didn’t accidentally ‘check her out’. I may be a somewhat evolved man, but I’m a man nonetheless, and some things just happen automatically if I don’t think about it.
Conveniently when she turned around to look at me, I was already making eye contact with her. She introduced herself as Kristen, and of course, said she already knew who I was. As we filled our plates, she invited me to join her at a table, and so I did. We made small talk at first, and I think was doing a pretty good job of not looking at her breasts while we ate. Of course I could see them, but as long as I looked at her eyes I could almost forget I was having dinner with a naked woman.
I remembered what Dr. Bascom had told me about not being afraid to ask someone why there were here, so I decided to give it a try, and I asked.
“I was in an abusive relationship for about five years.” She told me. “It started out pretty good, but I didn’t know that he was the jealous kind when we were first dating. I moved in with him after only two months of seeing each other, and that’s when things started to change. If I was getting ready for work, and I had on a nice outfit, sometimes he’d tell me to change. He’d tell me I didn’t look good enough to wear something like that. After that he started telling me I was ugly, and I was lucky he even wanted me. He’d say that no other men would want to be with me, so I’d better be grateful to him.”
“Wow, that’s horrible. How could you put up with that?”
“I was only 20 when I moved in with him, so I’d only ever lived with my own family prior to that. And I’d only had one boyfriend before him, so I had almost nothing to compare to. After a while, I started to believe him. Any time I did something he didn’t like, he’d ignore me to punish me. I’d cry and beg for his attention, beg for him to forgive me and just talk to me. After about a year of that, well, that’s when he first hit me. I was crying and asking him to tell me what I had done, when suddenly he just backhanded me in the face. I’m not very big so I went flying across the room. I don’t even think I screamed, I was just in pure shock for a long while afterwards.”
I was stunned. I had never spoken face to face with a woman who’d been abused like this, and every paternal instinct inside me was screaming to avenge her. I wanted to find that guy and pound him into dust… but, I also knew that you can’t beat the ignorance out of someone. So, I took a deep breath and kept listening.
“All the abuse worked at my self-esteem and I really did start to feel like I was the biggest loser on the planet. I was ugly, misshapen, stupid, clumsy, a lousy lay, a bad cook, and a slut anytime I put on something he didn’t like. Oddly, the best thing that ever happened to me was when he got busted for trying to pick up on an underage prostitute. It was a police setup, and he got caught and put in jail. He called me to bail him out, but when I said I wasn’t sure we had the money, he started yelling and swearing. I hung up on him. I was scared out of my mind, but I also knew if I was ever going to get away from him, this was my chance.
“I didn’t care if I ended up on the streets, I just had to get out of there. I packed a small bag with some important things, and also anything I could think of that might give him any clues to where I’d gone. I didn’t even take any of the clothes that he’d convinced me to buy, I left all that behind. I’d been working at a coffee shop, so I went by there first to let them know I was leaving. In the two years I’d worked there I had never told my manager what my home life was like – I was too ashamed. That evening, I told her everything so she’d know my quitting wasn’t about her. She’d been a good person to me, and I couldn’t leave and have her think it was the job.
“She truly was an awesome woman too. After hearing my story, she paid me double what she owed me, even though I protested. She also gave me a card for a women’s shelter that a friend of hers runs in the next town over. She told me exactly what bus to take, and by the time my bus arrived, her friend was right there waiting for me. Her name was Luanne, and she was one of the nicest people I’d ever met. She stayed up all night with me, just listening to my stories, and making me tea. She had the most distinctive laugh of anyone I’d ever met, and when she let it loose, you knew you’d really cracked her up. She was the one that suggested I come here. Luanne didn’t believe that I was far enough away to be truly safe from my ex. She contacted Ascilla, and in a couple days I was here. My life has been amazing ever since then, I am a completely different person now, and my soul is at peace finally.”
I had never wanted to clap after hearing a personal story from someone, but I was darn close to doing so right then. I felt happier just having heard her story, and all I could think of doing (so I didn’t clap) was to stand up and hug her. She accepted my hug with true appreciation, and enthusiasm. I was so happy to have heard her story, and gotten to know her. Kristen was a fine young woman, and I just felt like she was going to do big things in her life. We finished our meals, and said good night to each other.
I have a feeling it wasn’t pure coincidence that I ran into Ascilla in the hallway on my way to my room.
“I see you met Kristin, what did you think about her?”
“I think she’s a really amazing young woman. She’s been through so much terrible stuff yet she has this amazing outlook on life. I mean after all that abuse by that guy too.”
“How did you feel as she was telling you about the abusive times?”
“Oh I wanted to go find that guy and beat the crap out of him for what he did to her. She’s so great, and he just treated her like shit.”
“Did you feel sexually attracted to her?”
“No, not at all. I actually felt sort of parental towards her. I guess it’s her age, but I really got wound up when I heard about that guy. If I were her dad, I’d probably be in jail for what I’d have done to him. Sorry, I guess that’s kind of violent sounding. I don’t really mean it, but it’s just how I felt as she told me the story.”
“It’s okay Bob, you’re a good person, and you have a good heart. You get strong protective feelings when you hear about powerlessness and abuse. That’s natural, especially for a man like you. But, can you now step back, and take a deep breath, and see it differently? Can you see that if someone had come to rescue her, even with fine and noble intentions such as your own, that she’d have not made the same decisions that she made? She wouldn’t have done it all for herself like she did. Being rescued, and finding the inner strength to change your own life are two very different things.”
“Yeah, I do see that, now that you point it out. She needed to get to the place where she took control of her own life, and got herself out of that situation. She had to do it herself.” I said.
“Exactly. Once she made her choice, she had plenty of help and guidance along her way. And, now we’re blessed to have her here with us. Well, good night Bob, we’ll talk more tomorrow.”
I told her good night, and watched her walk away. I know I was probably breaking some kind of rule, but I couldn’t help but notice what a lovely figure she had. She was actually a bit taller than me, but thin and athletic looking. I suddenly felt my thin cotton shorts get a little snug. I was glad no one was in the hallway as I made my way to my room.
I slept like a rock that night, and didn’t wake up until I saw sunlight streaming into my room. It was so quiet at the Haven, so much different than my usual urban noise pollution I was accustomed to.
I am not much of a breakfast eater, so after putting on my shorts and shirt, I just grabbed a coffee and went outside. The air was crisp, but not too cold. It smelled fresh and unpolluted, unlike the city air I breathe daily. I didn’t see Sylvia come out, so I startled when she spoke to me.
“Good morning Bob, are you going to join us for meditation?”
“Oh hi. Um, sure. When and where does it happen?”
“In about ten minutes in the Great Room. See you there!”
I didn’t know there was an organized meditation group, but I could use the quiet and relaxation that it offered. I went back inside and saw most of the women were already on the couches, and some on the floor. I decided to sit on the floor with my back against the arm of one of the couches. On the upper landing, there were three large pillows, and Ascilla and two of the staff were sitting on them facing us. There was some soft instrumental music playing in the background, probably to help us relax.
“Alright, let’s get quiet.” Ascilla said to us. “I want you all to concentrate on your breath. As you inhale I want you to mentally say ‘One’ and as you exhale I want you to think ‘Two’. In, One, out, Two. Try to conjure an image of the actual number as you think it. Picture that number on a large movie screen in your mind. One, Two, One, Two. Don’t rush it, just breathe naturally.”
As everyone was doing that, I looked around the room at the diverse women who were there. Everyone seemed so peaceful and self possessed, and so completely comfortable with who they are. Much like yesterday morning, about half were wearing something, and half were not. I was just amazed by that comfort level. Personally, I rarely walked around nude in my own apartment, so to do it here was something I could hardly consider. I don’t think I have a bad body image, just not a really good one.
I used to be in better shape, back in my thirties, but that was 20 years ago, and things have shifted a little since then. I could stand to lose 20 pounds, and exercise more. I keep telling myself I will get around to that sometime soon. In the meantime, I was glad for the long oversized shirt.
I wasn’t doing very well with my meditation, I had already lost track of my ones and twos, and was looking around to see if I was the only one. A woman across from me was making direct eye contact. It was unflinching, intense and hungry. I had to be the first to look away, I felt slightly intimidated by her. I tried my best to get back to the ones and twos, in and out, in and out. Just breathe, just breathe.
“Alright everyone, now that we’re relaxed, let’s do some focus work.” Ascilla said. “I want you to think about where you used to be – and what brought you here. I want you to go back in time, and then walk through your own lifeline, like you’re seeing a movie in fast-forward. See how far you’ve come.”
At first I didn’t really think I could participate in this mental journey. I remembered Kristen’s story from yesterday, and my life hasn’t been anything like that. I don’t have some horrible memory to conjure up, or some trauma that I survived. But, looking around the room, almost every person had their eyes closed, imagining their life’s movie. I saw tears on almost every face, and some with tears and a slight smile at the same time. I could actually feel the pure and open emotions in the room. I was moved by how many of the women were obviously so proud of how far they’d come.
I started to think about my past significant relationships with the women in my life. How they started off so great, but then began to fade as time went on. Why was that? Why did I always end up feeling so empty at the end of each relationship? Like I was drained out and dry inside. Why wasn’t I enough for them? I did everything they wanted me to do, lived up to every expectation they had… Soon enough I was crying like a child with my hands over my eyes – like I was hiding it. When I moved my hands, and wiped away more tears, I saw that Ascilla had moved down and was sitting right in front of me.
“Bob, do you think you can tell me what you saw? What came up for you?” She asked.
Some of the women around me were still in their own meditations, but several more had moved closer and were facing me. Each and every face that was looking at me was looking on with kindness. I could actually feel the love and support without one word being said.
“I saw myself in my past relationships. I saw how they all started so well, with lots of attraction, lots of mutual interests, fun & sex. But each time they began to fade away, to lose all of what made it so great in the first place.”
“Was it the actual relationship that diminished, or something else?” She asked quietly
“I don’t know… Maybe not. I think…” I was crying again. “I think maybe it’s me. I faded, I lost interest, I couldn’t do it anymore, but I don’t know why! What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do it right?”
I really lost it then, sobbing and burying my face in my hands again. I felt so exposed and vulnerable, but also safe enough to be able to express my inner fears too.
“Bob, let’s try something okay? I want you to think back to those great beginnings. Just the very beginning of your last two or three relationships. I want you to think about the feelings you had then. How were you attracted to each other? Who initiated the first dates? Who declared their love first? And, how did you feel loved by those people – what made you feel appreciated and loved?”
It was easy to think about the beginnings of romantic relationships, that was the good part, the best parts of a romance. That was the time you felt a hundred feet tall, and like you could do no wrong. Every part of your being was tingling, and you hung on every word the other person said. Just thinking about those times brought my crying to a stop, and I found my words again.
“I’ve never thought about those questions before, like ‘how were we attracted?’ I guess it was just me noticing that a woman was checking me out, or actually flirting with me, or coming on to me. I’d just know, I guess. As for the dates, I think I’d try to find out about the kind of things they like to do, and then plan something fun that I thought they’d like. I am a pretty emotional guy, so I’ve probably always been the one to be the first to say ‘I love you’ to someone. After that, I guess they’d say it too. As for how I knew I was loved – that’s a harder question.
“I felt loved and appreciated when I did things that made them happy I suppose. If I made a great dinner, or fixed something that was needing repair, or if I bought them something special they’d been wanting. Those things felt really good to me.”
“Bob, what did you feel when they just praised you for being a good person? How did it feel to know they loved you for just being you?”
That question was like a punch in the gut. I just stared at her for what seemed like forever. Silent tears began to stream down my face as I started to realize my answer. But, I couldn’t answer, and I think she knew it.
“You’re a wonderful man Bob, and I think you may be the last one to discover that. You’re a pleaser, and you want so badly to make your partner happy. You’d do almost anything for them, I am sure of that. From your taking care of their every want and need, to being selfless in bed too, I’ll bet. But, what does Bob want? What does Bob get to ask for, and get? I believe that Bob gets lost in all the pleasing of the other person. And, at some point, when there’s just not enough things you can do for them, your feeling of being loved starts to fade away.”
From punched in the gut, to shot between the eyes, I was a dying man. I exploded in tears and sobbing. Ascilla moved to me and hugged me to her chest; arms wrapped around my head, and just let me cry. I cried for myself, for the ‘lost Bob’ that always tried so hard to be so good. I cried for all of the times I ever felt I wasn’t ‘enough’ of something for someone. And, I cried because I wasn’t sure I even knew myself anymore. I don’t know how long I was like that, but when I finally sat up to face her, everyone else was gone. Ascilla was smiling softly at me, and I knew she had a question behind those eyes.
“Bob, if only you could see yourself as others see you. I think you’d be amazed by it. I also think you had a big breakthrough today, and have a lot to think about. I just want you to know that you’re loved, cared about, and admired here. You’ve made huge strides in such a short time. I’m not sure I have know many others who are as brave as you are. Brave enough to look at the hardest parts of yourself, and really see what’s there. And, brave enough to let yourself feel the pain that comes along with that. You should get some rest, and just keep letting yourself feel everything. I’ll be around if you need me.”
She gave me a strong hug, stood up and walked away. I sat there for a while longer, but with other guests walking through, and staff around, I decided to find someplace where I could think about everything that had happened here. I felt too wrung out to be able to be social tonight, and since I didn’t feel hungry, I could just go somewhere and be alone.
I decided to go to one of the reading rooms down in the library to just think and process through everything. I found that all of the reading rooms were empty, so I had my choice of any of them. I chose the smallest one, with just a loveseat and a chair in it. I plopped down in the chair, and took some deep breaths to try and get focused. So many thoughts were running through my mind, it was hard to concentrate on any one thing. Since no one was around I took off my shirt, and left the door open so it wouldn’t get too warm in there.
I’d only been there for about thirty minutes when Sandra walked in. I remembered her from the group session earlier; she had the very intense stare that’s hard to forget. She asked if she could come in, and I nodded to her. Sandra looks to be a little older than me, mid 60s maybe. She is petite, tan, and looks like she works out quite a bit because he muscles are well defined. She was wearing the standard kaftan, but completely unbuttoned, showing that she took a great deal of care with her body.
“You look like you could use a friend right now.” She said softly, closing the door. “…Or, maybe just some help processing what you’re feeling?”
“Well, it was a pretty deep session. I’m still thinking over everything that I said and felt. Trying to sort out what it means to me. It’s just that it’s not happening very easily.” I said.
“Maybe I can help you. You need to get your mind off of it for a little while. Let’s try something, sit up straighter and put your knees together.” She said
I wasn’t sure how this worked, but since she’d been here longer than I have, I figured she knew a process that would help me. I sat up in the chair straighter, and put my knees together like she asked. She stepped forward until she was straddling my knees, and then sat down on them. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes.
“Just relax and start breathing in and out through your nose, as forcefully as you can. Close your eyes and just think about your breathing, it will help you focus.” She said quietly.
I started breathing in and out like she said, and she began to massage my shoulders and upper arms. I mostly kept my eyes closed, but I looked at her through squinted eyelids to see what she was doing. She was breathing in sync with me, and she had her eyes closed too. As she began to massage my chest, she also started to move her hips on my legs very slowly. I felt her move her upper body in a shrugging motion, and peeked again to see that she’d dropped her kaftan back off her shoulders and was letting it fall off her arms and on to the floor.
She had small breasts, and pronounced nipples that were very erect at the moment. I was really starting to question what was going on here. I’m not and idiot, but I am trusting, and this was starting to feel more like a seduction than a therapeutic process. She saw me peeking, and used her hands to close my eyes again, and push my head backward so I was facing the ceiling. Her hips were moving more now, making circles on my thighs. I felt her hand move down my stomach and grasp my now turgid erection.
She undid the drawstring on my shorts, and freed me from the suddenly restrictive clothing. Pulling up and down on my shaft, she had moved her hips close enough to rub the head across her wet lips. I was breathing and trying to focus on my emotions, but my breathing had become staggered and I felt suddenly confused.
“Relax, just let things happen and go with it.” She whispered into my ear.
I put my hands under her armpits, and I stood up suddenly, lifting her to her feet at the same time.
“No!” I said. “I don’t want this, I’m sorry but I just don’t want this!” I was crying and my words were choked, but I could see she understood me. She grabbed her kaftan off the floor and quickly left the room. I collapsed on to the small couch there, curled up and let the tears come. I cried like I hadn’t ever cried before. Deep body wrenching sobs that seemed more like the retching convulsions when you’re sick. I’m not sure how long it went on, but I cried myself to sleep there.
When I woke up, Ascilla was sitting in the chair across from me. As soon as I opened my eyes, she went to her knees next to me and put her arms around me. She put her face next to mine, cheek to cheek, and just held me close to her. The warmth of her face, the smell of her hair, and her genuine kindness had me weeping again.
“Sandra came and told me what happened.” She said into my ear. “You’ve been through a real transformative experience today. Can you tell me what you felt? What you’re feeling now?”
“I don’t know what came over me.” I told her. “At first I was trying to go with the flow. Then I realized what she wanted to happen, and I was thinking maybe I should just go along with it, but then it was like lightning struck in my brain. I was just trying to please her… trying to do what she wanted because she wanted it from me. I’m supposed to do that right? I’m supposed to want what she wanted, because… I’m a man, right?”
“But the lightning, tell me about that” She said.
“It was like an energy surge, but coupled with thoughts and images that came flooding in from my whole life. All of the times I just ‘went with it’ or did what I thought was expected of me. It was like a lost part of me just shouted out ‘what about me?’ What did I want? Why was I ignoring me, in favor of what someone else wanted from me? I don’t know… I don’t know. That was my answer to myself. That’s when the lightning struck. It just hit me, I needed to be heard, I needed to please me, needed to put me first sometimes.”
I was still crying, but not hard. I actually felt sort of happy inside, pleased with myself, not a feeling I was used to. Ascilla moved her head back so she could look me in the eyes, she was smiling in a beautiful way.
“That’s a powerful realization. What does it mean to you?” She asked
“You were right, I’ve been a ‘pleaser’ my whole life.” I said “I’ve always tried to do what was expected of me, if not more. I felt happiness mostly when I did things that made others happy. But, until today I never realized that I was losing myself in the process. I wasn’t stopping to ask myself what it was that I truly wanted. I’d just be happy helping others get what they wanted, even if that was ignoring what I did, or didn’t want. In my relationships, if a woman wanted me, then that was enough. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t what I wanted. I don’t know for sure that I’ve ever pursued exactly what I’ve wanted.”
“I think you’re ready to start doing that now.” She said “I think you might find a lot of things changing in your life after today. You’ve made a break through, and from it you have a clearer vision of not only yourself, but what you really want in your life too.”
I sat upright and faced her, she was still kneeling in front of me. I am positive it was a surprise to her when I reached out and took her face in my hands and kissed her on the lips. But, to my great pleasure, she kissed back with passion, and arms wrapped around my neck.
“I do know what I want now. I mean, I suspected it from my first day here, but now it’s perfectly clear. I’m in love with you Ascilla. I’m in love with everything about you, everything you are, your entire being. I know I’m still a work in progress, but this is something I know in the deepest part of my heart.”
She knelt there, smiling at me. I thought the pause would kill me, waiting to hear what she was going to say. But, on the other hand, I had spoken my inner truth and I could stand by that. Somehow it felt very freeing to just say what was in my heart for once.
“I love you too, Bob. I told you that a few days ago, remember?”
“Yeah, but I thought you meant in that friendly spiritual way, not like what I’m saying now.”
“Bob, a week ago when Dr. Bascom called me to tell me about you, I felt a powerful energy inside myself as she spoke of you. The more she told me about you, and your struggles and issues, the more I felt that energy. The morning you arrived, I walked out to see you sleeping on the sofa there. I watched you for quite some time, while the others gathered to meet you. Once I’d seen your face, and felt your energy, I knew I was right with my feelings.
You’re an amazing man, Bob. Whether you know it yet or not, you’re simply amazing. And, each day that you’ve been here, I have seen you in the most earnest and dedicated struggle to find this buried part of yourself. You dedicated yourself to something so difficult, most people would have turned away from it. Or worse yet, blamed others for their own issue. You never even as much as joked about it, or tried to minimize any part of it. I can’t tell you how much I respect that, and admire all that you’ve done.”
She leaned forward and kissed me hard, and I knew that everything she’d just said was her truth as well. I wasn’t used to being admired, or called amazing, but I knew it was real for her, and maybe soon enough would feel real to me too.
She took me upstairs to where she lived. The entire third floor was her home, and it was colorful and beautiful like her. We made love like only two open and trusting souls can.
Being driven to a mysterious location, in the dark of night with a sleep shade over my eyes, made me feel like I was being kidnapped by terrorists meaning to do me harm. That couldn’t be further from the truth though; I was a willing participant in this secretive operation.