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What is the Body Electric Experience?

With its roots in eastern traditions such as Tantra and Taoism, The Body Electric School (BE) offers a unique experience to most first-time participants. Whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or heterosexual, people leave their first workshop touched, moved, and sometimes profoundly changed. Yet the words they find to describe their experience often seem inadequate. Over the years, the disconnect between the limitations of language and the expansive experience of Body Electric has led to a number of misperceptions and myths about what the Body Electric experience is, and what it is not.

BE graduate and Sacred Intimate Everett James sat down with the managing director of Body Electric, Tom Berry, and three facilitators—John Ballew, Michael Cohen, and William McMeniman—to separate the fact from fiction regarding Body Electric.

Everett I am surprised at how often I encounter people who only know Body Electric through the experience of others, or—as often—through the mythology that surrounds it. And so often the perceptions are far from the reality. Rather than trying to walk through all the things that Body Electric is not, I think that it is important to discuss what Body Electric is.

As facilitators, what is it that you hope participants will take away from their Body Electric experience?

John There are so many things that keep us apart as men. There are our judgments about ourselves, and about one another. We constantly worry that we are not good enough, that we are somehow going to be inadequate. Those of us who grew up as men who love men often grew up with a sense of isolation, that we are really not like other people, that other people can’t understand us. So, to let go of all that, to really experience community—even if it is a temporary community—is an amazing experience. An experience of living without judgment for a couple of days is an important part of what we offer.
Michael We begin by creating an environment of safety. Within that environment, I work to offer a sense—and an experience—that it is okay to be open and in community around eroticism, that it is okay to be open with other men about Eros and sexuality and emotion. I also hope that men experience that it is important to do that. And I hope men experience a sense of freedom or release from shame around their bodies, that it is okay to be with men, in the light, naked. And I hope men get some education about their bodies, about breath work, and movement, and energy, and about touch, and about being with their own bodies and other men’s bodies. I hope that they get in touch with playfulness around all of this. And I hope they get a sense of the potential Eros and sensuality have beyond what they have known.
William I want participants to reframe how they see and experience erotic energy, to widen the realm of possibility and not be boxed in by their past ways of seeing and feeling. I want them to have fun, to find enjoyment without judgment, to allow themselves to be carried by the energy, and to experience a sense of connection to all aspects of the self and to others in the group.
Everett I know that I came to my first Celebrating the Body Erotic workshop at a time that I was seeking to deepen my own spiritual practice, and to really explore my sexual, sensual, and erotic self. I was hungry to find other men who were on a similar journey. While I didn’t bring that spiritual part of my quest into the workshop consciously, it—along with the other things that I was more intentionally seeking—was answered. For me, the experience was life-changing.

What brought you to Body Electric, and what were your initial experiences like?

John My first time as a participant was in 1987. I had read an article in the Advocate about the work that Body Electric was doing at the time. It was really a little bit of heaven. I came back the next year to do the course that was called “Healing the Body Erotic.”  After my third year participating, I became a coordinator, bringing Body Electric to Atlanta.
William I had been participating in a healing group that was not associated with Body Electric. One of the organizers invited me to a Saturday night “rub.” The next morning, I had all of this energy. I talked to him about it. He was a Body Electric coordinator, and invited me to attend an upcoming workshop. That was the beginning for me.
Michael What brought me to BE was hunger and loneliness, a sense of being lost, and needing a group of people…needing to be initiated into Eros and community. The experience was magical, transformative. It caught me by surprise. It was a sense of coming home, like I had found my tribe. My life took a totally different direction. My personal growth efforts moved onto this path.
Tom My first Celebrating the Body Erotic was 1995 in Oakland. I had been single for three years, and was just looking to learn something new about myself. I thought it would be an interesting way to discover another aspect of myself. It was radical; this work is radical, especially to those unfamiliar with it. I was living in the Midwest at the time, and extremely engaged with my work; I did nothing more with Body Electric for fourteen years. Then in the spring of 2011 I reached out to learn more about tantra after reading a Living Soulfully email message about an upcoming Tantra workshop in New York. Once again, I was wondering “How do I expand myself?” Body Electric provided the answer.
Everett Each of us seems to have approached the Body Electric experience from a different angle, with different needs and expectations. Yet, clearly, we have also each found something in this experience that has greatly affected us.

What is it that Body Electric offers that has such a powerful effect on us?

William As human beings, erotic awareness and erotic expression is our birthright. It is a major part of being human, but it has been denied to so many of us. Body Electric offers a sense of coming home to yourself. It allows you to remember, to come back to a real, felt sense of self—that erotic awareness and erotic expression—in all of its wonder.
John Our job is to clear things out of the way so that the participants can have the experience that they need. My desire is that they find a different way to love themselves, and they find a way around the obstacles that we as men often put in the way of having that experience. Most of the men who go through the workshops will experience something that is pretty life changing. It may not happen the first time, especially for men who have had a lot of wounding or barriers in their lives. But those who remain with it, something powerful really happens.
Tom There is a truism that when you experience love and loving expression like we do in the workshops—the inner circles, outer circles, the heart circles—lives change.
Michael This is the most inclusive growth path that I know of. It is very freeing, a great education about your body and about Eros, and what Eros is separate from sexuality. I wish it were required for all men and women.
Everett I know that in many of the workshops that I have attended and assisted, I have heard the facilitator say that “This work is not therapy, but it is therapeutic.” Could you speak to that?
Tom Having seen the people that come to us who have been traumatized physically and sexually in childhood—or even as adults—and the amazing transformations that they can experience, you can see that healing takes place. If one comes in and is open to the idea of learning about erotic energy and learning how that energy can be spread to create a spiritual experience, the result can be rather profound.  It is not just about the physical sensations, it is so much more.
John In my work as a therapist, I rely on the view of Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard. That is what is underlying this work for me. This is not looking at one another with a critical eye, or a sense of anxiety or desperation, but about really learning to hold one another in a positive space. When I talk about massage, I talk about trying to visualize your hands as an extension of your heart. If you touch others in this way, touch with your heart, you will really be great at this work. People are hungry for giving—and receiving—this touch. Both as a giver and as a receiver, it is healing.
Michael People need to be at a point in life where they can acknowledge that something is missing, they need help, or they have experienced some degree of disappointment or loss, so that they come wanting something. They have to be ready to accept things about themselves, their bodies, their limitations. There is something that they have to need. If they come into the workshop in this way, then it can truly be therapeutic. Through pleasure can come healing.
William Body Electric makes it possible for us to establish a connection between our sexuality and spirit, and to break through barriers to fully energized erotic expression.
Everett Who would you say is the “ideal candidate” for attending Body Electric?
John Body Electric comes out of the world of gay men, but it offers an experience for all people regardless of sexual expression, sexual identity, or gender. I think we are have an impact on different communities in different ways. The work in the trans community is really exciting; these people have had a really intense journey with their bodies, and to experience that sense of joy and self-acceptance that is available through this work… there is nothing like it.
William Come, come, whoever you are.
Michael For most of us, no one ever taught us about our bodies, or about sexuality. If you are curious about your body, if you are curious about different ways of experiencing pleasure, if you are curious about experiencing a different way of being erotic and sensual, then this is the place to come learn.
Tom It is not just men we serve, but women, straight, gay, bisexual, gender fluid, gender-queer and nonheteronormative. We have excellent recent success creating and facilitating two gender-queer workshops called “Out of the Boxes – Celebrating the Queer Body Erotic.” We believe that the legacy of The Body Electric School is strong but needs to continue to demonstrate its leadership.  It was founded to support a group of men ostracized by society, filled with self-loathing because of what was then labeled “The Gay Plague.”   This is the situation many in the transgender community find themselves in today. We offer a safe environment to explore new forms of sexual expression and intimacy, Looking to the future, we are exploring additional programs for those who have different medical issues. Body Electric is a place for all kinds of growth—physical and spiritual – and will continue to lead the way.


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