The Sexual Revolution, a la "Playboy", now behind us, as well as the Victorian attitudes which it rejected, perhaps we are ready for a new conception of sexuality, one not dividing, but embracing, both body and spirit.
With few exceptions, such as the Tantric tradition, for centuries both Eastern and Western religious leaders have warned of the dangers of the flesh, and exhorted abstinence and restraint in the furtherance of spiritual ideals. Particularly in the West, the separation of the body and spirit, and matter and energy, permeates not only our theology, but Cartesian philosophy, medicine and science. It is only in recent decades that medicine has become more holistic, and physics has acknowledged the interchangeability of matter and energy.
A holistic attitude towards sex would incorporate the body and spirit, the physical and the divine. It so happens that both the path and the experience of mystical bliss parallel that of lovers' sexual ecstacy. It is not surprising that many saints refer to their relationship with Jesus as if he were a lover. I am suggesting that the spiritual experience is neither exclusive, nor preferable, to the sexual, but that it is merely an individual choice as to whether one finds the divine alone or shares the experience with another. In fact, each such experience only enhances the other.
Freud was revolutionary in proposing that healthy sexual expression is necessary for healthy psychological and emotional functioning. Wilhelm Reich realized the opposite was equally true; that if a person is emotionally healthy, he will be able to express himself openly and spontaneously, and this will generate a fulfilling, ecstatic orgasm. He postulated that surrender is the necessary prerequisite for total orgasm, as opposed to a mere release of muscular tension. In order to achieve this, in the late sixties sex therapists began recommending non-demand pleasuring, warning that too much focus on orgasm only leads to performance anxiety, and the loss of spontaneity.
Starting with the premise that the sexual response cannot be willed, Masters & Johnson introduced the "sensate focus" method in treatment of sexual problems. This therapeutic technique of mutual touch was developed to remove the focus from orgasm. They discovered that elimination of a goal-oriented concept in any form was pivotal for recovery. Their method taught participants to feel sensuously at leisure.
These are precisely the instructions for the proper attitude in meditation, and in ones relationship with God or a higher power. Buddhist teachers counsel that enlightenment will not come by the effort of ones will, that one should sit in meditation for its own sake, and although a certain amount of desire is necessary for a disciplined practice, desire itself can be an obstacle. Trying to control or make something happen may yield fleeting pleasurable experiences, but is self-defeating in the long run.
Focusing on techniques and goal, whether orgasm or enlightenment, only takes us further from awareness of the present and the joy of the moment. One is directed not try to get anywhere or achieve anything, as too much attention only produces tension. Trying to control the mind disrupts meditation.
Not surprisingly, Masters & Johnson came to the same conclusion, in describing the dilemma of impotency and being caught in the role of spectator, trying to make something happen. This causes apprehension and performance anxiety, and furthers sexual dysfunction.
The sensate-focus method is the sensual prescription for abandoning self-consciousness to the present, similar to meditation, where one experiences the immediate present - no time, no past, no future. Form dissolves, yielding to pure experience.
Thus, it is in the giving up of control, not trying, nor willing - the shedding of the ego's desire, and its opposite, fear, that the boundaries of self and other fall away; one enters an I - Thou relationship, whether communing with God or with the soul of another. Whether love making or in meditation, it is a physical, emotional and mental surrender and opening to this emptiness, moment by moment, with no holding on to the moment experienced, nor anticipating the next. Through such spontaneous surrender, one enters a timeless emptiness that at once becomes full of joy and ecstasy. Tulku Tarthang writes:
"Open all your cells, even all the molecules that make up your body, unfolding them like petals. Hold nothing back: open more than your heart; open your entire body, every atom of it. Then a beautiful experience can arise that has a quality you can come back to again and again, a quality that will heal and sustain you.
"Once you touch your inner nature in this way, every thing becomes silent. Your body and mind merge in pure energy; you become truly integrated. Tremendous benefits flow from that unity, including great joy and sensitivity. The energy flowing from this heals and nourishes the senses. They fill with sensation opening like flowers." (Tarthang, 47)
In the Christian tradition, when speaking of infused prayer, St. Teresa could be depicting sexual union, where the senses rejoice and the intellect ceases to reflect, instead resting in the presence of God (or ones lover). She also writes that we can do nothing to procure this experience, but that man must open his whole soul to God. Submission of the will is necessary for perfect union. As in surrendering to a lover, she urges fully trusting and disposing of oneself to God, with an attitude of "I am Yours, I do not belong to myself any longer." This represents the longing of the soul "to love, to be loved, to make love loved." In this state of immense depth and openness, God then unites man to Himself and in this intimate union expands and transforms him, as lovers are transformed by their sexual union, when they have fully surrendered, as Reich advocates. (Father Gabriel, 112-115)
Her account of surrender is as sensual and arousing as is D.H. Lawrence's:
"He took her in his arms again and drew her to him. It was gone, the resistance was gone, and she began to melt in a marvelous peace...and she felt herself melting in the flame (of desire)...and she let herself go to him. She yielded with a quiver that was like death, she went all open to him...she was all open to him and helpless!
"...her breast dared to be gone in peace, she held nothing. She dared to let go everything, all herself, and be gone in the flood.
"...heavier the billows of her rolled away to some shore, uncovering her, and closer and closer plunged the palpable unknown, and further and further rolled the waves of herself away from herself, leaving her...and she was gone. She was gone, she was not, and she was born: a woman."(Lawrence, 178-179)
When lovers are fully present with each other, by putting aside their expectations and their fears, and are able to open their minds, hearts and bodies to the unknown of the moment, there is a surrender of the ego that occurs akin to death. In this empty and timeless space, absent of "self," the energy flow from both souls merge in a union of love, described by St. Teresa and Tarthang, that is both expansive and euphoric. Such experience is restorative and transformative, whether occurring alone in meditation or prayer, or shared with another soul.
Reich attempted to explain this commonality as an outgrowth of a functional point of view, as distinguished from a mechanistic one. From the latter, mechanistic and mystical thinking, and religion and sexuality, are incompatible. On the other hand, in functionalism the contradiction dissolves.
Sex as a mystical experience is far from a casual encounter. It demands a new morality, one borne not of rigidity nor indulgence, but of strength and vulnerability. It requires a strong sense of self to be vulnerable enough to abandon the ego. Additionally, in order to promote integration of body and soul, sex should be approached with integrity and compassion. If instead it emanates from selfish motives, solely to satisfy physical needs, or to possess or control another, it only strengthens the ego, and is destructive to the soul, which, as a result, retreats even further from reality.
Valuable guidance is found in Buddhist sexual ethics. Here the emphasis is not on the sexual act itself; in fact, some schools even recognize passion as a means to enlightenment. Ones motives must always be ethical; so that a Bodhisattva will take care to never harm or deceive another, thereby not harming him or herself in the process.
Reich, Wilhelm, Discovery of the Orgone, (1967)
Masters & Johnson, Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970)
Tarthang Tulku, Openness Mind (1978)
Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., The Way of Prayer, A Commentary on St. Teresa's "Way of Perfection" (1965)
Lawrence, David, Lady Chatterley's Lover, (1928)
Copyright, Darlene Lancer, 2009
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, with a broad experience, working with individuals and couples for more than twenty years. Her focus is relationships and career goals, helping clients overcome obstacles and lead fuller lives.
Her training includes psychoanalytic psychotherapy, family systems, cognitive-behavioral, dream analysis, gestalt, and hypnotherapy. She's also taught meditation and yoga and is familiar with spiritual challenges and crises.
Formerly an attorney in the corporate and private sectors for 18 years, she's familiar with career challenges and transitions, and has taught Stress Management and coached clients to successfully reach their personal and professional goals.
She's worked extensively in the field of addiction and co-dependency at numerous hospitals and treatment facilities. Helping substance abusers and their families find recovery has been a rewarding part of her practice. She's familiar with 12-Step Programs, but has a client-centered philosophy, encouraging each person to determine his or her own abstinence and treatment goals.
Both in private practice and as a Senior Mediator in Los Angeles Superior Court, she mediated Divorce and Child Custody and Visitation Disputes.
Free consultation, by appointment. 310-458-0016