I recently finished working on the February Sex issue of Common Ground magazine where I’m employed as an editor. It was a ton of work, but I got to read lots of fascinating material about sex, so I’m definitely not complaining. After contemplating the subject for four weeks, the only conclusion I have is that sex really is a loaded subject—in every sense of the word. We humans are so intrigued by it, yet it remains a mystery to most of us.
What I find interesting is the way that different people conceive of and approach sex. For some folks it’s no big deal; for others, it’s super significant. I suppose I fit in the latter category. Even though I’ve been out of relationship for some time now, I haven’t had any desire to go on the hunt for a bedmate, and dating lots of dudes just hasn’t appealed. Some single women I know go out with random people every night. They meet at bars, shoot the shit, smooch for a few hours, and part ways. Maybe I’m missing something, but that seems about as fun as sitting on an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic with no clothes on.
Perhaps I just have a very old-fashioned view of sex. While I certainly enjoy it as much as the next person, it’s not something I take lightly. Maybe that’s because I’m aware that sex involves so much more than physical intimacy—in many ways it’s an energetic exchange. In the modern world most of us are so uneducated about subtle anatomy and we don’t realize that, in addition to having physical bodies, we have energy bodies too. That means when we are physically intimate with another person, his or her entire being meshes with ours, like the smoke from two fires coming together. We don’t just enter someone’s body; we enter their essence. Isn’t that significant?
It’s unfortunate, but our culture really doesn’t offer a sacred view of sex. In the media and everywhere else, sex is portrayed at the grossest level—it’s all about performance, positions, and la petite mort. But if we actually knew how much was happening subtly when we merged bodies with another person, we might consider our consorts more carefully.
While I’m no expert on this subject (not even close!), it’s definitely something I’ve thought about a lot. I truly believe that physical intimacy can be one of the most powerful crucibles for deep healing and transformation. The Tantrikas of ancient times understood this, which is why they used sex for spiritual awakening. They didn’t just screw because it felt good. They practiced under the strict guidance of a teacher and used sex as a kind of technology to awaken higher consciousness.
Over the years I’ve been very influenced by Tantric philosophy. When I say “Tantric philosophy”, I don’t mean the watered down sex workshop version, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that—it’s wonderful. What I mean is the Tantric view that this world is divine and every single shred of it is pulsing with a sacred life force. When we bring this perspective into the bedroom, it can turn a mundane sexcapade into a holy experience. For this to happen, no erotic acrobatics or obscure philosophical discussions are necessary. All we need is an awareness that our partner has a spark of divinity inside—a recognition that he or she is more than just a mound of flesh with genitals and a beating heart.
Although in the West Tantra is often associated with sexual practices, that interpretation doesn’t articulate the full beauty of the tradition. More than anything, Tantric images of deities embracing are symbols of the ultimate union between energy and Spirit, or form and emptiness. They remind us that all of our ordinary activities—sex included—can be portals to greater love and transcendence. Pop culture often overlooks this subtle meaning, which can be dangerous. We need only look at scandals in the yoga world to see how some people toss around words like Tantra, but lack the integrity, accountability, and discrimination to put those words into practice in a healthy way.
At the deepest level Tantra is a way of life, not a bliss fest relegated to the bedroom. After all, any schmo can read books on sensual massage, semen retention, orgasmic ecstasy, or whatever else, but what’s so great about that? Good technique doesn’t make someone a nice person or even a skilled lover. In my humble opinion, being a good lover is all about presence. It’s about being a good listener, a good senser, and an openhearted human being... but that isn’t always easy! If it was, we’d all be enlightened. Maybe that’s why lovemaking—just like eating, walking, or breathing—is a great vehicle for spiritual practice. Like watching our breath in meditation, as soon as our mind wanders we can gently bring it back to the present moment and the amazing human being before us.
One definition of the word tantra is “loom”, which is perfect since Tantric wisdom has helped me weave together the different parts of my being. Years ago I had a bad habit of compartmentalizing my life into boxes—namely, worldly and spiritual. I felt that only certain things fit inside the “spiritual” box and sex was not one of them. I never felt that way in my late teens and early twenties, but at the age of 22 everything turned upside down.
It all started after college when I became a full-time spiritual maniac and spent hours reading books on non-dual philosophy, renunciation, and the nature of suffering. Although I was living with my guitar-playing, poetry-writing, tofu scramble-making boyfriend at the time, I was convinced that our relationship was a roadblock on the path to enlightenment. This belief threw a little wrench in our less than perfect partnership and eventually, after five years of being together, we packed up our cozy cabin in the woods and went our separate ways. He moved down to Atlanta to pursue his music career and I went to India to try monastic life on for size.
For almost six months I did my spiritual practices like a good devotee and cheerfully served food in the ashram cafe. Even though my white clothes were stained and I spent most of my time meditating on God-iva, overall things were grand in nun-land. There was only one minor problem: I didn't really want to be a nun. Sure I wanted to get enlightened (whatever that meant!), but I also wanted to live a vibrant, sensual, creative life. Who knows why, but it seemed impossible to do both. So I stashed my desires away in a nice airtight container labeled "repression". Every time I felt sad about the end of my relationship, I pushed the grief away with platitudes. Every time I felt angry, I forced myself to forgive and forget. And every time I felt lonely, I snuffed out my desire for companionship with an arrogant, know-it-all attitude: Come on, woman, only weak people need affection!
In the name of liberation I was so hard on myself and, after a few months, my heart shut down to the joy and beauty of life. All I wanted was to be a strong, surrendered, devotion-soaked lover of God, but instead I felt divided inside—like there was a deep fissure in my being. On the one hand I desperately wanted to drop everything and live a monastic life, but on the other hand I craved intimacy and connection; by the time I left the ashram this internal split was painfully obvious.
The late sage Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “Don't pretend to be what you are not; don't refuse to be what you are.” Isn’t that brilliant? In India I felt so damn sure that spirituality had to look a certain way and I was determined to make my life fit into that story, but it didn’t work... at all. Although I knew there was ultimately no separation between “worldly” and “spiritual” life, I couldn’t figure out how to bridge the gap.
Have you ever felt divided inside? Maybe not divided about “worldly” life and “spiritual” life, but about something—a relationship, perhaps, or a job? It’s the uncomfortable feeling that two (or more) parts of our self are at odds with each other and, in order to keep the peace, we have to suppress one part. For instance, we may be in a relationship that feels untrue in our gut, but breaking free of our lover’s arms may seem so scary that we just stay there and rot. It’s amazing how we lie to ourselves sometimes... but those lies can’t last forever. If we keep turning our back on truth eventually the pressure will become too intense and we’ll snap—at least that’s what happened to me.
After being single for three years upon my return from India, the force of my suppressed desire for intimacy became too much to bear. I remember exactly where I was when the big shadow looming over my celibate life came into view. I was standing in my kitchen in Boulder making oatmeal when all of a sudden I felt like a huge cannonball was shot through my solar plexus. Leaning against the sink, I burst into tears. Initially I had no idea what was going on, but then this intense desire for physical affection emerged from deep within me. It was palpable and so painful—a yearning I had pushed away for far too long.
Maybe I was afraid that if I opened myself to love again I might get caught in a quagmire of suffering and attachment. After all, the saints and sages said that desire and attachment were the cause of suffering—and I had experienced the truth of that for myself. So why share my heart and body with another person, only to fall off the path? Why get caught up in my desires when I could sublimate them in service or sadhana (spiritual practice)?
It seemed like an obvious choice to just steer clear of all that messiness and enjoy life on my own. But there was another issue in the mix: I was afraid of intimacy and found it safer to hide behind a fortress of spiritual teachings. I didn’t want to risk getting hurt again, so I tried to conceal my human longings under a shroud of indifference. It’s not that I was insincere in my quest; it’s just that two parts of myself were fighting with each other. My fears and old wounds were all mixed up with my higher aspirations and it felt impossible to heal the rift.
Smack in the middle of this unraveling I got sick. I’ve written about this in other blogs so I won’t go into too much detail, but basically my life force vanished like a shooting star and it didn’t return for a few years. There were many reasons for this, one of which was absolute exhaustion caused by trying so hard to be someone I was not. The yogini in me wanted to be like the Buddha and cast off the world, but she wasn’t a Buddha yet—at least not a mature one. She was a woman who wished to give and receive love—deeply and passionately—as well as a spiritual seeker who wanted to bust through the illusion of separation and ego.
As I accepted this truth, things shifted. I ended up meeting the kindest man who taught me so much in the two years that we were together, and I began to embrace the principles of Tantra in a real-world way. The teachings helped me see that I didn’t have to cut myself in two. Instead, I could live one integrated existence and use everything in the service of awakening. It was such a relief to realize that I didn’t have to renounce the world and escape to a mountain cave; I could weave my desire for spiritual expansion into the very fabric of my life.
Tantra helped me understand that the body is not something to reject, but rather it is a temple for the divine—a scripture that tells the rich story of our current incarnation. When we invite someone to read this story with us, anything is possible. That’s because the body isn’t just a pleasure factory; it’s more like the wilderness, filled with gnarled roots, bright flowers, and unknown mysteries. Every single thing that happens to us in life is stored in the body, even if it’s just an energetic imprint. These imprints can be healing and beautiful, or they can be painful in the form of trauma and unprocessed emotions. When we open our body to another person, we create the fertile conditions for both wellbeing and wounding to arise, which makes us incredibly vulnerable. That’s why it’s so important to trust the one we open to because, in touching our body, he or she also touches our soul.
Of course we can have sex and feel nothing, just like we can eat food and not taste it. But we can also express love through our physical forms and turn it into worship. This may sound like some romantic fantasy, but it all depends on how we define worship. To me, it’s about being transparent with the universe. When I sing that’s a kind of worship, but the practice isn’t always pretty. Sometimes I cry or feel really pissed off. Other times I feel so grateful and relaxed. Whatever happens, it’s all part of the process. Isn’t lovemaking the same?
Who just shows their lover a smiley, happy face? In intimacy everything spills out—and if the love is genuine, there’s room for all of it to be there. I think that’s the beauty of sex. We may not have 1008 orgasms every time we commune with our partner, but that’s not the point (unless, of course, we just want to get off). Orgasm or not, sex is about sharing love, and when we share love any part of us that resists love will arise; that’s what makes it so powerful.
When we dive into another soul, we never know what’s going to happen. What makes these connections special is that we don’t share this kind of energy with most of the people we meet in life—we only gift it to a select few. While some folks are more promiscuous than others, chances are that even if we have hundreds of lovers, we don’t let all of them see our tender heart. That’s risky, eh? But what do we really want when we make love? Sure we want the pleasure, but maybe more than that we want to forget ourselves. For just a few moments we want to stop thinking and obsessing about our self-centered existence and disappear into the vastness of our true nature.
This is such a deep subject—I could keep writing and writing. For now, I’ll stop here. Thank you for reading, sweet blog reader. I appreciate you!