May 18, 2012
Is Sex A Path to God?
I just had a dialogue with my friend and collaborator, the great integral philosopher Ken Wilber on sexual ethics (the recording of which will be broadcast on June 2nd). Several years ago, we had a similar conversation on the question “Is Sex a Path to God,” which became the article below in EnlightenNext magazine:
Andrew Cohen: We want to talk about a fun and challenging topic today, which is the relationship between sexuality and spiritual development. As we both know, sexuality can be an incredibly confusing area of human life, one that is very difficult to negotiate with simplicity and clarity. There are a lot of reasons this is the case—especially for those of us who have grown up in this postmodern cultural context and are now striving to discover what lies beyond it.
The sexual impulse is one of the most overwhelming forces we can experience. The drive to procreate, as I see it, is the physical expression of the evolutionary impulse behind this entire universe. What could be more powerful than that? When any one of us feels the stirring of the sexual impulse within our own body and mind, we are feeling, at a biological level, that same creative surge that propelled something to burst out of nothing fourteen billion years ago. It’s awesome to consider. But, of course, in our lack of humility, too many of us underestimate the power of what we’re actually dealing with, and it’s easy to see why we often lose our balance in this arena. The biological procreative impulse is designed to be overwhelming. And then, of course, we have to add to the picture the way culture conditions us to respond to this powerful impulse.
In the postmodern era, for example, we are in a unique situation, because we have grown up in the age of sexual liberation, in which most traditional taboos have been broken. We have cast aside many seemingly outdated notions of morality in relationship to sexuality. I grew up, as I’m sure you did also, being told that sex is basically a good thing, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody. Sexual experimentation was implicitly encouraged. I was never really given any guidance as to how to make sense of this particular area of life—everything was very open. Only when I became more interested in my own spiritual development did I begin to see how problematic and often deluding, or obscuring of awareness, sexuality can be when our relationship to it is very conditioned and unliberated. And I’ve noticed that being given sexual freedom doesn’t necessarily make an individual more enlightened about the role that sex or sexuality is supposed to play in human life. I’ve met many sophisticated, smart people over the years who have plenty of sexual experience, but I can hardly say I’ve met any who express a sense of real clarity, self-confidence, and objectivity in relationship to this area of life. The question of what is the right relationship to this overwhelming force is an important one. We only have to look around us to see that there is no easy answer—in spiritual or secular life.
What’s often happened in traditional spiritual contexts is that people either have chosen to leave this particular part of life behind or have integrated it into their religious life and practice. Some religions, like Judaism, for example, include lovemaking as an integral part of their cultural code of conduct. But that usually involves very traditional roles for men and women that many of us, particularly in the West, have outgrown. So I’m very interested in finding a way to embrace this dimension of life that makes sense in our time and culture and that neither avoids it nor makes it the central focus of our attention.
Most approaches to sexuality fall into one of two extremes: either concluding that “sex is bad,” as do some of the traditions or, as does the culture in which we grew up, concluding that “sex is good.” But I realized at a certain point that sex itself is neither good nor bad. It’s basically a neutral force—an evolutionary imperative that’s being carried out through this particular biological function. The function itself has no moral dimension: it’s neither good nor evil. Of course, it can be expressed in ways that are positive or negative. But I think realizing that the nature of the force itself is beyond these moral distinctions is very important, because it compels us to really think about the question, What is my relationship to this neutral force? So that may be a good place for us to start.
Wilber: That is a good place to start. And I think the distinction between sex as ordinarily understood and sex as a neutral but much larger force is really, really important. It’s a distinction that is made in the traditions, and it is really crucial to understanding transformation and development. Those people who are interested in an integral or evolutionary perspective don’t have any trouble understanding that there is a spectrum of consciousness that has developed over time. The terms we often use to describe these stages in the evolution of consciousness are archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral. Each of those levels of consciousness represents an increase in care, in compassion, in love, in concern, in awareness—as long as there isn’t a pathology or a dysfunction. But what is not always understood is that alongside that spectrum of consciousness is a spectrum of prana, which can simply be defined as energy. This notion is found in the great traditions from Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism) to Vedanta (Hinduism). One way to put it is that “every mind has its body.” Every stage of consciousness is supported by a type of mass energy, or prana.
When we use the term prana, there are two meanings. In a small sense, prana means vital energy, bioenergy, bioelectricity, the energy of vitalism, and so on. And in its small form, prana is responsible for uniting one organism to another. In its big form, it’s responsible for uniting one sentient organism with the entire universe. And that oneness, of course, that One Taste, that nondual experience, is what the great liberation is all about. It’s what being one with everything is all about. And it brings you a deliverance from the small self and the small self’s sex.
So when we talk about spiritual liberation, about enlightenment, about waking up, we’re not just talking about a shift in consciousness, which is almost the only thing that’s talked about nowadays. “Just focus on the power of the now,” people tell us. “Just pay attention to the present moment.” And they’re right on the money when it comes to consciousness. But they forget the embodied part of the picture. They don’t address the actual flesh, matter, energy part, which is prana, sexuality. And so what we want to see with enlightenment is not just a shift in consciousness from small self to Big Self or Big Mind but also a shift in sexual patterns, which is a shift from narrow prana to big prana—which is the sexuality that Big Mind has, if you will.
And so what we’re looking for is a spectrum of sexuality that parallels the spectrum of consciousness from archaic to magic to mythic to rational to pluralistic to integral. And very briefly, one of the systems in which we find these correlations drawn out happens to be the chakra system of the Hindu tradition. There are seven chakras, and those chakras are energies that correspond with the seven major levels of consciousness, running from the bottom to the top. Level one is the energy of food, level two is the energy of sex (in the small sense), level three is the energy of power or intentionality, level four is the energy of love, level five is the energy of self-expression or self-actualization, level six is the energy of self-transcendence, and level seven is the energy of oneness with the All. So this is a type of map that we can find in the traditions that reminds us that every change in consciousness has a corresponding change in energy, or sexuality, in the body.
Cohen: So what you’re saying is that sexuality develops through an evolutionary spectrum in the same way that consciousness does.
Wilber: Yes. And this is what tantra is devoted to. Tantra came along and said to the Neoplatonic traditions and the Theravadin traditions and so many of the already existing traditions, “Look, you can get people to awaken, to become one with the All, by sitting on a cushion, crossing their legs, and meditating for ten years. Focusing on consciousness, they can drive their identity up the great chain of being to that full oneness at the top as a conscious realization. But guess what, folks—you can do the same thing sexually. And sexually is much more fun!” So once you learn how to use these sexual energies, you’re going to drive your sense of identity up through the chakras—from being one with food, to being one with sex in the narrow sense, to being one with power, then with love, with self-expression, with self-transcendence, and ultimately, to being one with the All. But at each of those steps, it’s going to be a blissful, joyous, radically erotic feeling. Instead of having to use willpower to push yourself through these stages of development, you can use fucking. You can use visualizations of sex and activities of sex and engaging prana in a real and vivid and vibrant and living fashion. So that’s one of the things we want to keep in mind here as we talk about a post-postmodern sexuality. One of the things that we want to slip into this new formula of what sex is and can be is: Sex is a route to God. It is a short, fast, incredibly blissful path to discovering your own deepest, highest self. That’s one of the great things that tantra came along to remind us of, which we want to include and update and clean up and revise to take account of what we’ve learned in the modern and postmodern world, particularly with regard to the evolutionary current.
Evolutionary spirituality is actually driven by big prana, by this big energy, and that big energy is the correlation of big awareness, of the Big Self; it’s the correlation first of what you call the Authentic Self and then the purusha, or Big Self. What the traditions didn’t understand so well is the incredibly dynamic nature of these energies, the fact that they are evolving and that the goal is not to get into some equilibration state where nothing is moving and you’re in a sort of unmanifest absorption. That’s actually a lower realization. The true realization is coming out through that unmanifest state, united with big prana and therefore finding a union with everything that’s arising, that’s driven by Eros, by this fundamentally sexual orientation toward the entire manifest world.
Cohen: Everything you said is very beautiful and makes perfect sense theoretically. But on a practical level, I personally have never seen such an elegant, deeply spiritual, inherently enlightened embrace of Eros as sexuality.
Wilber: You mean in the actual tantric practices?
Cohen: Yes. What you are describing is a deeply integrated vision that makes sense because it’s so inherently inclusive. But when we go from theory to reality, I’ve never in my life seen any kind of manifest expression of what you’re speaking about in real human beings. And I have definitely looked around. I’ve paid a lot of attention to my own experience in this arena, and that of my students. I’ve been married for more than twenty years. I have students who are in committed relationships and students who choose to be celibate for periods of time. I’ve met thousands of adults from all around the world, including people who claim to practice tantra, and I continue to meet more and more. As far as I can see, with very few exceptions, it’s an area that most people seem to be incredibly confused about.
You know, Ken, there were a couple of important experiences I had as a young seeker that shaped my own thinking about this subject. In my mid-twenties, I started to realize how deeply conditioned I was in relationship to lust and to sexuality. Ongoing introspection and contemplation were showing me how unfree I was in this deeply challenging and profoundly confusing area of life. It became obvious that I had little genuine freedom of choice in this domain, and I didn’t like it. I’ve never been a prude or a moralistic individual; I’m definitely a product of the sixties. But it was dawning on me that my relationship to sexuality had become conditioned by a materialistic culture that seemed to be blurring the distinction between eroticism and pornography.
So I decided that I was going to be celibate for a period of time. I wasn’t living in an ashram; I was living in New York City, and I was by myself. For three years I abstained from any engagement with the sexual impulse. I was very, very serious about it.
Wilber: In New York City, at that age, that’s quite an accomplishment!
Cohen: Yeah, it was—unbelievable. I would tell some of my friends what I was doing, and they thought I was insane. But this period of celibacy was a very powerful time in which I learned a lot about the relationship between mind and body. I eventually ended the practice after three years, because I sensed that its lesson had been learned and that celibacy was becoming more of an attachment than a source of freedom. But the insights I experienced during those three years remain ever new. Their liberating power is as vital and profound for me today as it was when I first experienced their truth almost thirty years ago.
One of the most important things I learned from the years that I chose to practice celibacy was not to be so victimized by the experience of sexual desire. I’ve observed that most people, men and women, but particularly men, feel so overwhelmed by the power of the sexual impulse that instead of it really being empowering, they often feel victimized by it. There is an automatic conclusion drawn by a lot of guys when they become sexually aroused that “the power of this force is stronger than me,” and this automatically puts them in a victimized relationship to it. In an emotional and psychological and cultural context between men and women, that is a losing position right from the very beginning.
So, as a teacher, one of the things I do is try to get men to do enough spiritual practice to get to the point where they don’t feel victimized by the sexual impulse. I am convinced beyond any doubt that unless we get to a point where we know that who we are is stronger than that impulse, we are never going to be able to embrace it and express it in any kind of freely chosen, appropriate, and even spiritual manner. I just don’t know how we could possibly do it. To me, it doesn’t make sense to even begin to talk about this potential in tantra until an individual has reached this foundational point.
Wilber: Well, I’d say a couple of things about that. What I laid out is my overall theoretical summary of what sexuality could be and should be—idealistically. And I think you and I agree on that essential summary.
Wilber: Then the next question is, Do any tantric practitioners actually do that?
Wilber: And the answer is going to be, well, let’s just say, damn few! The notion of tantric sexuality came to America largely after World War II, riding on the wings of the Japanese, Hindu, and Tibetan influx into this country, and it started to have a certain kind of impact. But the kind of impact, I agree entirely with you, has not been nearly as positive or favorable as it could or should be, because the interpretation that tantric sexuality is given often comes from the postmodern, or pluralistic, stage of development, or what is often called the green meme.
Cohen: Right. And this is where it gets really tricky. As I said, I have nothing against the practice of tantra as a higher expression of the sexual impulse—I think it’s a beautiful thing. But one theoretical problem I have is that it begins with a presumption of duality or opposites. Opposites have to unite to experience union. To me, from a spiritual, philosophical position, I find that difficult, especially, as you were saying, in our postmodern context. If you take two unenlightened people and put them together with the idea that they need each other to experience spiritual union or fulfillment, that’s inherently problematic. In our culture, men and women are already expecting, asking, demanding, and hoping for far more from their romantic and sexual relationships than those relationships could ever provide.
Partly this is because there’s a utopian promise in any expression of the evolutionary impulse, including its most basic biological level, which is the sexual impulse. So when one is sexually aroused, there’s a kind of precognitive sense of promise that if I fulfill this aspiration, follow it to its culmination, then I will experience some form of utopia, some kind of bliss that will deeply fulfill me. This is compounded by the fact that in postmodern culture, as you’ve said in your own work so many times, there is nothing higher than the self, no grand metanarratives, no Absolute that transcends the personal ego. So the romantic/sexual experience, the promise of whatever happens between two individuals, has, I think by default, become the realm of the sacred. It has become the most important, most cherished, most precious area of human life for the postmodern self. From movies, from books, from every possible direction, we are told that this is where we will find perfect fulfilment. Of course, most people will admit that they’re not really getting out of that particular experience what they would like or hope or what they think they are supposed to be getting.
Cohen: And now, of course, a lot of people are interested in spiritual evolution, and they think this particular kind of relationship is going to give them a sense or experience of intimacy with life, with self, with other, and ultimately with Spirit or God. In my own experience, I just don’t think this is how it works. But because for so many of us God or Spirit has not been found, we tend to project our craving for spiritual union onto our romantic relationships. So if unenlightened people begin to embrace a tantric philosophy and practice, I wonder if these cultural hopes and expectations aren’t just getting played out in a spiritual context.
Wilber: I agree entirely that there is very little good that comes from playing with so-called sexual tantra. Most of the “sexual tantra” in the West is nothing but sexual games made up by Westerners that have very little to do with Eastern tantra. In Eastern tantra there are no orgasms. “Little sex” reverts to “Big Sex”—a whole-body blissful thrill, one with everything that arises—not just a single partner but the entire universe, mystico unio. That is the ultimate goal and ground of sexuality, not any play of mere genital energies and their egoic romantic involvements. If you’re having an orgasm, you ain’t doing Eastern tantra. If you’re just lying down with your girlfriend and getting sexually hooked up and holding that for a half hour so you have a bigger orgasm, that has nothing to do with tantra.
Cohen: [Laughs.] You know, to be honest, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing inherently evolutionary about the sexual experience. It can, for all kinds of practical, personal, and cultural reasons, either be constructive and strengthening, and even a source of individual confidence, or be a destructive experience, emotionally and psychologically. But as far as I’ve seen personally, the sexual experience itself, even practiced in a spiritual context, doesn’t necessarily help a person evolve in any kind of fundamental way. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sex. I’m just saying I’ve never actually seen it have that kind of evolutionary effect. So I’ve come to the conclusion that the sexual experience doesn’t necessarily affect deep self structures—the kind of structures involved in the process of the individual literally moving to a higher level of development. And more important, I’ve observed that even with all our best spiritually enlightened intentions, sex tends to create karma, in the sense of consequences that burden the self, more often than it creates liberation or lightness of being. It tends to create more confusion than clarity.
That doesn’t mean sex is bad or immoral in any way. The experience of sexual intimacy and of the bliss, excitement, and creative friction of polarities awakening is great! But unfortunately, when the fireworks are over, we still have to deal with all the emotional, psychological, and cultural complexity of these two individuals when they’re not identifying fundamentally with their sexuality. Sexual bliss is beautiful, but I think it’s unrealistic to think we can have that experience without all the other factors that tend to complicate things—although, being a man, I can certainly understand just wanting to have the bliss and not any of the rest!
Wilber: Right. Of course, as I was saying, I was giving an idealized overview, whereas you are talking about what we really face. That’s the difference between a guru and a pandit! A guru consents to take on the karma of those he interacts with, which is one of the most difficult, heart-rending, and heart-opening endeavors a person can undertake. So that’s what you face as a teacher, in the trenches, working with individuals day in and day out.
Cohen: Right. It’s part of the reality of human existence that it is often as a result of being sexually aroused and attracted to a particular individual that we make life choices that define our destiny—and those choices are not necessarily made in moments of big-minded objectivity! Too often, they just happen when we get emotionally carried away, and then we have to deal with the consequences later. Those kinds of moments usually create an enormous amount of karma. So although I feel that for the postmodern self who’s striving for a higher level of development it doesn’t make sense to exclude sexuality from the picture, as some of the traditional paths do, I think the important question is: How can we embrace sex as an inherent part of the human experience without it creating karma? That’s been my approach to all of this. How can I include the sexual experience in my life, not necessarily as a vehicle for the experience of higher consciousness, but simply in such a way that no karma is going to be created as a result of it—so that it won’t be a source of bondage?
Wilber: There are two points that you bring up, and I think they’re both extremely important. One is the role of pranic energy itself in ongoing growth and development and evolution. And the term prana, as I was saying earlier, is used in two ways. On one hand, it’s simply the energy of Spirit, the energy of spirituality—wherever there’s spirit in action, there’s prana. So neither you nor I want that prana denied, because obviously that’s the juice of life, the light from the sun, moon, and stars and the love that moves all of them, to paraphrase Dante. But then there is prana meaning the emotional-sexual energy in a specific form, which is most commonly associated with the second chakra. As you said, there is karma associated with the second sheath in Vedanta, prana maya kosha, the sheath made of emotional sexuality. So the question is, How do we deal with that?
This is an important issue. As one’s individual psyche or self or soul is developing from birth, in essence it moves through these seven broad levels of consciousness, which are fairly well represented by the seven chakras. It starts out exclusively identified with each level, and then as it goes forward, it disidentifies from exclusive attachment to the previous level and moves to the next. So, for example, at the first level, there is identification with food—with the oral and then the anal ends of the alimentary canal—and you get what in Freud’s system are known as the oral and anal phases of psychosexual development. If that goes well, the self lets go of that identification and moves to the second chakra, the phallic stage of development, and so on up through the chakras. What happens as it moves up is that the self disidentifies with food and sex, for example, but doesn’t lose the basic motivations of food and sex. You still eat, you still have prana, you still breathe, you still have emotions, you still have sexuality, but unlike when you were at those stages, you’re not exclusively identified with them. If a part of the self remains exclusively identified with a lower stage, there will be a resulting pathology. If, for example, a part of the self remains identified with the anal stage, according to psychoanalysis, you have an anal personality structure. If the self remains identified with the first chakra, or food, then it’s going to have either an allergy or an addiction to food; if some part of consciousness remains fixated, stuck, or repressed at the second chakra, the individual will have either an allergy or an addiction to sex—either they will either be puritanical or they will be Hugh Hefner. That is true up through the whole spectrum.
What spirituality is, in the last instance, is disidentifying with all of the narrow identifications with the seven chakras but leaving the seven chakras themselves in place. So we still eat, we still have sex, we still have intentionality and drive, we still have love, we still have self-expression, we still have integral awareness, and so on, but we’re not identified with them anymore. That allows us to use these drives and motivations and needs and desires as they come up, but they’re not going to create karma.
Cohen: Because we’re not fundamentally identified with them. They are parts of the self, but they’re not the source of the self.
Wilber: Exactly. We’re not exclusively identified with them. Pathology is when part of the self exclusively identifies with the chakras or the developmental stages as they’re unfolding. That also shows what it is that we are trying to do with spiritual practice, and why in many cases spiritual practices include a period of fasting. There’s food fasting, where you go, say, seven days without eating, and it will really force the exclusive identification you have with food into awareness. Once you are aware of it, you can look at it and make that subject into an object. The same thing is true with the second chakra. You can go on a seven-day period of sex fasting—or go on a three-year period of sex fasting—whatever is required to help you see this exclusive identification with sex and make that subject an object. That’s an important part of what we are doing with sexuality: actually holding it in awareness. So what we need to learn to do is, in a sense, to “mind fast”—to go through periods where we don’t act on the drives and needs and desires of each of the seven chakras so that we can break our exclusive identification with them. That’s one of the practices that helps us see our addictions.
Wilber: And, of course, what we are trying to do now, in our culture, in our time, as “over–Hugh Hefnerized” as the West is, is to ask: Are there ways that we can pass through sexuality and not become either addicted to it or allergic to it? That’s part of what a spiritual path should do for us: help us see our relationship to sexuality. It’s fine to go through periods of fasting, as we were saying, but not to have a chronically sex-negative attitude toward life.
Cohen: Well, hopefully, most people at the postmodern stage are beyond that.
Wilber: Yes. The vast majority of people in this country who are interested in these types of things are indeed at the pluralistic, or postmodern (green), stage of development. As we both know, that stage of development has plenty of problems of its own! For one, it denies any sort of differences. It’s an egalitarian approach to the world, and what that means when it comes to sexuality is that it completely destroys any sexual tension between men and women, destroys the creative, vital sparks of difference that make sexuality such an extraordinary thrill and joyful and blissful experience. It wants to water it down into “same for you, same for me. You want to be on top this time? No, you go ahead.” Yawn, yawn, yawn.
Cohen: Well, that’s the problem they’re having in Northern Europe. The differences between men and women have been denied to such an extent that the men have become feminized, as Elizabeth Debold wrote about in EnlightenNext magazine. I’ve heard, interestingly enough, that more and more women in Sweden and Denmark are getting into relationships with Muslims, because they want to be with what they would consider “real” men instead of the emasculated, feminized Northern European men.
Wilber: Right. If we look at this developmentally, we can see that in the traditional or conventional stage of development, the sexes are highly polarized. Women stay in the kitchen, and men earn the bacon. But moving beyond that to the postmodern or postconventional stage, differences become less and less emphasized. And when people get stuck in that stage, it almost wipes out sexual energy. It destroys the creative difference between men and women that allows that joyful spark and juice to arise sexually when the male body and the female body are brought into contact and allowed to do their thing.
I find that people have a hard time with this idea, but I think that at the higher stages of development, like Carol Gilligan’s fourth stage, for example, which she called “integrated,” men’s and women’s roles in each person are integrated. But what that means, paradoxically, is that a man becomes more masculine but less identified with it. So he can become just a very strong source of presence and—
Wilber: Yes, and sexual energy, but he’s not identified with it. He is not a macho shithead. He’s very caring, open, and loving, and he’s masculine. That’s one of the things that happens as we continue to disidentify with the exclusive attachments to these various chakras. I think it’s one of the things that happens with individuals who follow the path that you outline. They go through a stage when they come to you and they are just blanded out . . .
Cohen: You know, that’s true. And then as they evolve beyond the postmodern ego, there’s a kind of authentic autonomy that emerges, and in some ways, the best qualities of the masculine and the feminine become liberated.
Cohen: Instead of masculine and feminine qualities being neither clearly differentiated nor consciously owned.
Wilber: Yes. And similar variations on that theme should be the goal, in my opinion, of men and women in the post-postmodern age.
Join me and Ken Wilber on June 2nd for a free broadcast exploring sex and sexual ethics. Register here.