A Dialogue on Sex and Spirit
with Dr. Deborah Taj Anapol, Ph.D.
and Taber Shadburne, MA
Taj: I've noticed that
when people talk about the union of sex and spirit what they usually
mean is taking sex and putting some ritual around it. All well and good
but theres more to it than this. When I think about connecting
with spirit, I think of a direct connection to Source. Its finding
someplace inside of me that resonates with this larger whole and doesn't
feel limited by my personal identity, not limited by my personality
or my mind or my body. Theres a place in me that recognizes that
I don't really have a separate existence apart from the whole, and to
me that's what spirituality is about, coming from that place. That's
the essence of it. This experience of oneness is the spiritual intent
behind all ritual. As we know, rituals can become empty and meaningless.
So putting ritual and sex together means nothing in and of itself.
Taber: A lot of very different things
get talked about as spirituality. What I call an awareness oriented
spiritual practice is very different from ritually oriented spirituality.
It doesn't necessarily exclude rituals, but the context is different.
Taj: What do you mean by awareness oriented
Taber: My background is in Zen Buddhism.
In that context, the emphasis is not on forms of any kind, but rather
on the awareness in which the forms arise and pass. Not on the contents
of experience, but on the process of moment to moment experiencing.
There is a dis-identification with forms, shifting one's sense of identity
from the contents of consciousness to the consciousness itself. There
is a dissolving of one's sense of identity, transforming the sense of
self. On this path, the primary spiritual practice is bringing compassionate
awareness to the contents of experience—thoughts, sensations, emotions
—and noticing them as contents of experience, without being identified
Taj: I resonate more with the non-dual
traditions of Advaita and Kashmiri Tantra. But all of these awareness
oriented practices as you call them, lead to a direct experience of
what I was calling Source, a larger beingness, a space with the capacity
Taber: As one dis-identifies with the
flow of thought and emotion, it tends to slow down and become more transparent.
And as compulsive thought and emotion drops away, there is a radical
shift in your sense of self.
Taj: One of the attractions that sex holds
for people is that sometimes it propels us out of the mind into direct
experience. But not necessarily. You could engage in sex and be in your
head the whole time, or be very focused on the goal of having an orgasm,
or a bigger and better orgasm, and not have a spiritual experience at
Taber: Sex has the potential to either
help liberate us from the ego, or to be a very ego driven activity—
probably the primary activity, in fact, that (at least male) egos are
Taj: So surrounding sex with ritual can
be a reminder to approach it from a more conscious place, but it doesn't
Taber: Right, because ego can get very
attached to rituals.
Taj: The same thing can happen with multi-partner
sex. As I discuss in Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits, the potential
is there for a very liberating experience but it can also bring up all
kinds of unresolved sexual and relationship issues. If you get identified
with the emotions and fail to recognize the opportunity for personal
work, it can turn into a nightmare.
Taber: One falls prey to what Chogyam
Trungpa aptly called "spiritual materialism." In other words,
the elements of ritual or polyamory become new shiny toys for ego to
become breathlessly infatuated with: "this is so cool!" One
becomes attached to the contents of experience, lost in the land of
Taj: People get very caught up in Tantric
technique—to last longer, to move the energy, to...
Taber: ...have the ultimate mind-blowing
Taj: Even just to have a deeper connection
with your partner, to give and receive more pleasure. And there's nothing
wrong with these things. In fact, theyre great. But it's not the
full Tantric experience.
Taber: Having an agenda is somewhat antithetical
to the awareness oriented spirituality we've been talking about. Having
a goal, trying to get somewhere, is usually an egoic preoccupation.
Taj: This is why certain segments of the
spiritual community feel that celibacy is the best path. It also has
something to do with the mistrust of sexuality by the spiritual community,
recognizing that it can lead you away from, rather than toward, a more
Taber: The spiritual goal, often times,
has been a taming of ego-based desire—being motivated by a compassionate
or loving impulse, rather than by greed or fear. Sex is looked upon
as the ultimate manifestation of greed and selfish desire, and so it
gets quarantined. But then the problems really start—because that
which we try to exclude from our spirituality inevitably comes back
to bite us in the ass. It comes back in a more destructive form (witness
all the scandal lately in the Catholic Church with their supposedly
celibate clergy). The problem, however, is not with celibacy itself,
any more than it is with sex. Celibacy, consciously undertaken for a
period of time, can be a helpful practice. But religion usually gets
moralistic about sex, makes it "bad," and encourages repression.
Taj: Osho said, "Sex is the beginning,
and if you miss the beginning you will also miss the ending." You
need to be open to fully exploring sexualove if this is where your attention
is drawn, but if you stop there, thinking, "OK, now I've embraced
my sexuality; this is it!" you miss a whole other level.
Taber: The mind always wants to divide
things into categories, and into different camps in the way that you
just described, camps like sexuality and spirituality, what's good and
what's bad. But awareness-oriented spiritual practice is ultimately
non-dualistic; it's all about noticing those dichotomies that the mind
creates, and not being suckered in by them, realizing that they are
arbitrary and potentially problematic.
And that's where the traditional Tantra movement
(at least in Buddhism) arose in response to the moralistic and puritanical
trends that had developed within the religion. The word tantra comes
from the root "to weave," and the movement was about weaving
back into your life all of the aspects that had been moralistically
excluded from spiritual practice by the religion. So they had rituals
that involved eating meat (which was forbidden by the orthodoxy) or
drinking a little alcohol, as well as sexual elements. But sex in that
context was approached as a meditation.
Taj: To see if you could dance with the
devil, to see if you could fully experience sexual desire, sexual passion,
without getting lost in it.
Taber: without going to sleep.
Taj: without coming out of your meditative
Taber: Exactly. But then all of those
more esoteric practices are easily co-opted, re-appropriated by the
content-oriented mindset, by popular religious practice, which gets
attached to the forms and rituals and such. But my understanding of
the heart of Tantra is that it is awareness-oriented, non-dualistic.
Taj: but many schools of tantra (particularly
the Hindu schools) fell right back into the dualistic mindset.
Taber: yes, that's what I mean. The mind
is always trying to recapture the space, to re-categorize experience,
to re-create its precious dichotomies. And then it privileges one half
of each dichotomy over the other—this is good and that is bad.
Taj: As someone rooted in the spiritual
community I wonder what sort of impressions you might have about polyamory
and Tantra and the various sacred sexuality communities and practices.
I'm asking you to put out whatever judgments you might have as well
as, hopefully, a more objective perception of what it's about, and what
its usefulness might be.
Taber: My experience of the tantra community
is limited, so my biases are not really based on much ...
Taj: But that's probably typical of people
in the spiritual community, and I'm interested in how you all perceive
Tantra and the sex positive communities.
Taber: OK, my biased impression has been
that modern American Tantra, as a spiritual path, is somewhat incomplete.
While it, understandably, wants to emphasize pleasure as the path to
awakening, and rescue pleasure from the bad rap that it's gotten in
the historical religious context, I haven't seen it address the more
difficult or painful aspects of practice, which I think are unavoidable.
There are difficult, challenging aspects of serious spiritual practice,
and you need a way of understanding and working with them. I've imagined
Tantra to be a "feel-good "(in the fluffy sense) approach
to spirituality, and not very challenging (in the good sense).
Taj: I can understand how you would have
that impression, and yet that's not been my experience, even in the
totally feel-good, Neo-tantra groups. I'm thinking about the emphasis,
for instance, that Charles Muir puts on G-spot massage, which might
be considered a feel good experience, but more often than not its
a very intense, and not necessarily pretty experience at first. The
men have to be warned that anything can and does come up rage,
memories of sexual abuse, shame, physical pain all kinds of shadow
material has to be cleared and it can be a long time before sexual pleasure
is accessed. And prostate massage can be the same. But this seems more
like a psychological process than a spiritual process, so I'm wondering
if you could say what you mean by the difficult aspects of spiritual
practice. Theres a huge range of things that are offered under
the banner of Tantra. It depends a lot on the background of the teacher.
Some of them might be more accurately called Sex Education, or Sexual
Healing, which is valuable, but not necessarily spiritual in the sense
youre talking about. My own work, and that of Jack Painter, for
example leans much more in the direction of integrating developmental,
interpersonal, and transpersonal issues through direct experiences with
Taber: I include the psychological within
the spiritual. I'm talking about a confrontation with your own egoic
tendencies, a confrontation with your own ways of creating suffering
for yourself and others. I'm talking about engaging and working with
the process of how you create your own suffering and then spread it
around. Again, I've only been exposed to what I'm sure are "pop"
versions of tantra, but I haven't seen that process addressed by them.
I've only seen, as you described, ritual approaches to sex, which offer
the promise of being more healing and more intimate than the usual approach
to sex, but I haven't experienced it as a comprehensive spiritual path.
And I've also imagined—from the marketing and everything—that
it was capitalizing on people's fascination with sex.
Taj: Certainly, the marketing and the
commercial aspect of it comes into conflict with a lot of spiritual
tradition, where it's unheard-of to charge for spiritual teaching. I
do often see spiritual retreats offered where people are asked to pay
a fee (sometimes fairly large) for room and board, but the teaching
is separate and by donation (sometimes the donation is pretty heavily
demanded, but it is officially differentiated). For myself, I put a
price on what I offer, but if somebody comes to me and I get that theyre
sincere in wanting to learn but don't have the money, I'll generally
waive my portion but ask them to pay the cost of room and board. In
marketing Tantra retreats, in a way, you'd be a fool not to take advantage
of people's interest in sex. But then there can be tremendous resistance
to opening to the spiritual dimension, particularly when youre
dealing with people who are addicted to sex or to drugs. The addiction
is there in the first place as a way of avoiding taking responsibility
for your own suffering, but I try to make it a doorway into another
way of life. I see both my work in sexuality and in polyamory as using
the desire that people have for sex and love as a means of motivating
people to get interested in their own evolution. Now you might say that
that's not necessary, or that it's a manipulation, that when people
are ready they'll go seek a teacher and that you don't have to position
yourself to appeal to them.
Taber: Not necessarily, I just happen
to be coming from the opposite end of the tunnel; I lived in a Zen Center
for a couple years, and let me tell you, there's nothing less "sexy"
than a Zen meditation retreat. For a week, you spend almost all of your
time sitting still and staring at a wall. It's beyond boring (not much
to lure people in with). Of course, ego can still get a very excited
about what a virtuous thing I'm doing by engaging in this heroic or
ascetic practice, and that's the pitfall of this kind of path. But the
potential benefit is that it doesn't cater reflexively to the egos
desire for bells and whistles.
Taj: I'm thinking that if I had tried
to do 10-day Zen retreat ten years ago, I would have just been sitting
there staring at the wall and struggling with my sexual desire. Has
that happened for you or people you talk to?
Taber: Many people spend a fair amount
of meditation time engrossed in sexual fantasies. That's not been the
case for me, particularly, but sure, I watch sexual thoughts and feelings
come and go, along with all the other stuff. Or I've found myself casing
out the other meditators, which isn't a recommended part of the practice.
But that's been educating to watch myself do, in silence. It's been
educating to be in silence and watch myself strategize, and see what
a desperate little activity that can be.
Taj: I wasnt talking about sexual
fantasies. I very rarely fantasize. I meant I would be overwhelmed by
pure sexual energy. Of course this might have something to do with the
fact that in the past most of the time that I would go into a deep meditative
state, I would have some kind of psychedelic in my body, so that may
have exaggerated the energy and sexual direction of my experience.
Taber: So you would've been sitting in
meditation feeling turned on.
Taj: Yes, and having kundalini going up
my spine, having kriyas, and probably wanting to release it in some
way and not being able to get there through pure meditation.
Taber: Part of the meditative approach
(at least in Buddhism) is to be present with whatever sort of vivid
experiences, without having to do anything about them. You bring compassion
and equanimity to whatever is going on, and experience it fully, without
either feeding it or fighting it. The compassionate equanimity is the
point. You might have extreme discomfort and agitation, or you might
have "holy visions," but the attitude toward all of it would
be basically the same: "that's very interesting and it's no big
Taj: Yes, I resonate with that, at this
point, but in the past, the amount of energy I felt was really too much
for me to contain and that was without experiencing it fully! Tantric
practices really helped me move the energy. And then finally the Pelvic
Heart integration work began to show me how to be with my own energy.
So now I can enjoy sitting meditation, but sometimes at retreats I've
thought "this is out of balance; I'm doing all this meditation
and I'm tuning into my experience and I'm expanding my awareness, but
what about the body? It's been sitting here for hours, and it doesn't
feel very comfortable, and it would really like a massage. I would be
more relaxed if I were doing yoga or tai chi or something that incorporates
the body." For me, in the past, sex was the most fun way to incorporate
the body into my meditative practice. But the truth is, most often,
I found it extremely challenging to really take that meditative state,
and take that intensive energy awareness, and bring it into a physical
experience, bring it into sexual union. But when I was able to do that
it was pretty awesome.
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© Deborah Taj Anapol