“For some, sex leads to sainthood,” wrote Henry Miller. “For others, it is the road to hell.” The ambiguity Miller alludes to is mirrored in every religious tradition, where sex is both sacred and sinful, divine and depraved, a source of liberation and of attachment. Strains of Judeo-Christian thought equate sex with sin and regard the sexual drive as animalistic. But the same Bible that condemns to death those who commit certain sexual acts also gave us an erotic masterpiece, Song of Songs. And teachings that repress sexual expression also hold that sexual pleasure within marriage is a gift from God. Observant Jews, for instance, are taught that men are obliged to satisfy their wives on the Sabbath. And if you think you’ll get less ambiguity from the East, think again. The civilization that gave rise to “The Kama Sutra”can be as conservative Puritanism; for every guru who teaches Tantric sexual practices, there are probably ten who insist that their followers be celibate.
Ironically, religions that repress sexuality in the name of spiritual development often defeat their purpose. Guilt, shame, ostracism and fear can serve as deterrents to authentic spiritual experience, and suppression can sever one part of our being—our bodies and its passions—from the whole. It can also have the unintended consequence of fueling the sexual excess that makes religious leaders so apoplectic. I’m reminded of the group of men I knew who went off to a monastery pledged to celibacy. What they did three months later when they returned to “the real world” would fill an entire issue of Penthouse.
Sexual ambivalence is also mirrored in the private lives serious spiritual seekers. Some become more sexually active once they plant their feet on a spiritual path, as they heal the long-standing guilt and fear that restrained them in the past. Others become less sexually active, or even non-active, either to comply with the moral doctrine of a religion or because they come to see sex as a distraction from higher pursuits. Sometimes, engaging in powerful spiritual practices makes the need for sex less compulsive, less insistent and less dominant. While disconcerting at first, this shift is usually greeted happily because sex also becomes more satisfying. In general, whether they have sex more or less often, spiritual practitioners tend to shift in these directions: less sexual need, more sexual fun; less sexual obsession, more sexual fulfillment; less sex for physical gratification alone, more sex as an expression of love; less sexual power trips, more sexual sharing.
You might consider reframing the way you view the sex drive itself. Rather than see it solely as a moral issue, or as a purely physical need, it might be fruitful to see it as a form of energy. Like all powerful energy sources, this one can do either harm and good, depending on how it’s used. The question is, which orientation toward sex will best serve your spiritual development? This practical perspective enables you to use sexuality for spiritual purposes by moving the energy upward, away from the centers of power, procreation and gratification to the centers of love and spiritual awakening. Here are some simple tips, gleaned from a number of expert sources, with which partners can begin to transmute the raw material of sex into spiritual gold.
- Hold the intention of making your time together sacred.
- Create an atmosphere of peace and holiness.
- Consider lovemaking a form of prayer or meditation.
- Delete the word “performance” from your sexual vocabulary.
- Take your time and stay in the present moment.
- Make it OK not to climax every time.
- Value intimacy as much as intercourse.
Somewhere between suppression and excess, between avoidance and compulsion, there is a position of sexual balance that is right for you. Wherever you find yourself on the continuum, you can sanctify your sexual activity, elevating a bodily function to the status of spiritual practice.