Having Lao Standards
I remember when I first got involved with kink, there was no shortage of people willing to “show me the ropes”, often quite literally. It wasn’t too long after I got started, that I started to hear about “true” dominants, and submissives. But how is one to know who’s got it right? How does one recognize a master of anything?
Lao-tzu knew how: you don’t.
You can’t see Tao,
no matter how hard you look. You can’t hear Tao,
no matter how hard you listen. You can’t hold on to Tao,
no matter how hard you grab.
But it’s there.
It’s in you, and it’s all around you. Remember that.
As I’ve mentioned before, “tao” is the Chinese word for “way”. There are countless ways in our lives. There’s the way you read this column, the way you make a cup of coffee, the way you go to sleep at night, the way you roll someone’s nipple in your fingers before you pinch it.
Some ways are contained within others, or are related. The way you wake is intimately related to the way you sleep.
But there’s one way, The Way, which contains, precedes, follows, informs, and influences all others. Some have called it the Tao. Lao-tzu would tell you, don’t call it at all – because you can’t.
Why? It’s because the movement and nature of the Tao is invisible, ineffable, and beyond human comprehension.
Part of why that is, is because we’re a part of it. Think of it like a symphony, for a vast orchestra. Many instruments, playing together, produce the song which describes how the sun comes up, how it came up this morning. That same song describes the orchestra and every instrument that came into being to play the song, it describes everything that has ever happened, and is happening, and may yet happen. And while this song is doing this, it is describing itself. Dizzying, right?
So, what does all this have to do with kink? Well, there’s this notion tossed around a lot that being kinky is kind of like being a carpenter. You start out knowing nothing at all about carpentry, become an apprentice to a master carpenter, and by working for them, learn from them, until one day, you reach the place where you can do the same for others.
But, in terms of kink, that’s kind of nonsensical.
Here’s the thing – yes, kink has lots of skills to learn. Let’s take rope work for an example. There are dozens of different kinds of knots, all sorts of different materials from which to make rope, lots of things to know about the human body in order to tie someone up safely. It’s certainly a good idea to seek out those more experienced to learn these things. We can all be one another’s teacher or student for many things.
But then there’s the ineffable stuff, like why a particular tie turns you on, or why you like a particular kind of rope. You stumble across that knowledge by just doing the play. That stumbling is not the means to an end – it’s enjoyable in its own right.
One of my partners only knows a few basic knots, but he’s great at them. He doesn’t own miles and miles of rope, just a few pieces he uses to make rope cuffs or basic ties. I love when he does them to me. I keep meaning to get him to show me some of those skills, so I can have them too.
The problem I see with the master carpenter metaphor in kink isn’t the carpentry. It’s the mastery.
I could play with someone who is a very skilled rope top, but doesn’t know me well. He might be able to tie me up in ways my partner could only ever dream of – but because he doesn’t know me, know how I tick, my partner still has knowledge he does not. Mastery of skill doesn’t necessarily equate to a better play partner or experience.
Quantity of knowledge is acquired over time – but quality is not. Every time you play with someone it’s a bit like being born anew. Whether you’re topping or bottoming, every scene you do is a discrete, unique experience. Playing with someone is like dancing, or making love – both partners bring their life experiences, perspective, desires, and needs together. When this happens well, it’s because the partners are mindful of one another, listening, observing, and meeting each other at a mutually satisfying mid-ground. That mindfulness and rapport is always a possibility, but never a certainty.
That possibility is tempting, delightful, and often, completely infuriating. Mindfulness is a practice one chooses to do. But it’s not like computer programming, gardening, or playing the piano. You can’t hone it to perfection. It’s already perfect.