Is it possible to choose what thoughts you think? I’m not sure you can choose what thoughts float through your mind any more than you can choose what you’re feeling at any given moment. If you could, we’d choose to be happy all the time, right? I do believe, though, that you can choose what thoughts you give weight to. That’s probably the biggest benefit of learning to meditate – getting quiet and still enough to notice the obsessive/brutal/anxious thoughts that occupy your monkey mind and to practice turning down the volume or replacing them with thoughts that create serenity rather than suffering.
Is it possible to choose what kind of people you find attractive? That’s the tougher question that came up today in my therapy session with Roger (not his real name). He’s a fit, perky, reasonably attractive middle-aged guy whose consulting job requires him to spend a lot of time on conference calls. The other day he met in person someone he’d only previously encountered as a disembodied voice. Matthew turns out to be an extraordinarily handsome young guy in his early thirties, and Roger’s crushing out on him already.
We had an interesting conversation about the rules of attraction and what body types gay men are trained to idealize. Roger tends to prize men who are young and handsome, and when it comes to dating, he tends to rule out men who are older and heavier than he is. I know that many gay men of a certain age were socialized to have that specific taste in men, which I consider somewhat tragic – tragic because 1) most people aren’t young and handsome, 2) the ones who are don’t stay that way very long, and 3) if you’re only turned on by young, pretty guys, the pickings get slimmer as time goes by. Maybe I’m a bit of a pervert (“Maybe?” I can hear my friends saying) but I never bought into the classic gay stereotype of drooling over hairless skinny young twinks or muscle-bound guys with six-pack abs. A pot belly and a receding hairline have always been more likely to turn my head, and I think I’m far from alone in that predilection.
We talked about how gay culture has expanded over the years to acknowledge a wider spectrum of physical attractiveness and a richer diversity of erotic affinity groups – daddies and daddy-hunters (noting that “Daddy” no longer connotes “Sugar Daddy” who pays for everything), white guys and men of color who are drawn to each other, bears and their various sub-subcultures, the many flavors of kink. We talked about Bob Bergeron, the New York City-based psychotherapist who wrote a book about gay men aging gracefully — and then committed suicide on the eve of its publication, a victim of the toxic belief that you have to “stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved.” And by contrast we talked about the great gay poet James Broughton, the subject of the new documentary film Big Joy, who lived to be a juicy old man. We talked about how one of the roles for elders in any community is listening carefully to and bestowing blessings on younger people, and how challenging it is to give blessings when you don’t feel that you have received as many as you would have liked.
We cycled back to Roger and his thoughts about Matthew, which vacillated between “He’s so handsome – I wish I were that handsome – I’ll never be that handsome” and “He’s so handsome – I wish I had a partner that handsome – I’ll never have a partner that handsome.” Neither of these trains of thought left Roger feeling very happy. I proposed an alternative: “He’s so handsome.” Period. Bestow a silent blessing. What happens if you give weight to that thought?
Choosing what has meaning to you and choosing where you want to put your energy and awareness is also the subject of a famous commencement speech given by novelist David Foster Wallace (another suicide, for what that’s worth) to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. Check it out and let me know what you think. What thoughts plague you, and what other choices are available to you?