AUTHOR, PHILOSOPHER AND INTEGRAL THEORIST Ken Wilber laughed playfully on a recent Ethics of Sexuality podcast when he said: Don’t touch it or touch it as much as you can. That, Wilber pointed out, is the line humanity holds on the subject. Going solo for the first time in years, while a second marriage ends, I’m still surprised to return to this question of extremes. I see I haven’t escaped the trap of wondering how much of a priority sex should be. Would celibacy, for the time being, allow freedom from worry, keep me from jumping into another relationship just to take care of needs, or should I just indulge whenever I want to with whomever I want to?
I’m hopeful for a happy medium, perhaps even a Buddhist Middle Way. In Buddhist reasoning, sex should not simply be a conduit for sensual pleasure — kama, Eros — because this will only lead to suffering and addiction as one continues seeking fulfillment outside of oneself. In that case, one’s destiny becomes the realm of Preta-gati, the Hungry Ghosts. Of course, I wouldn’t want to walk the path that leads me to become a Hungry Ghost.
Less threatening is the tantric idea of sex as Sacred Energy Exchange or Soul Energy Exchange. It brings conscience and higher consciousness to the subject — even magic and manifestation — but also consideration that one must cut the cords of attachment to partners past, a clearing out of emotional entanglements, baggage (which I have yet to do).
I’ve long considered sex essential to my physical and emotional health. The Taoists stress the idea of sexual health, as do most medical doctors the world round. In The Tao of Sexology: The Book of Infinite Wisdom Dr. Stephen T. Chang instructs partners how to do daily “Morning and Evening Prayers,” sexual positions performed to enliven the body at the start of the day and to relax it at night. “The Prayers” are only two of some sixty odd positions for the purpose of healing specific ailments or diseases. All at once, Chang advises, warns, and promises the following in the preface:
Sex, a function that is generally unavoidable, must be made into a source of happiness, not pain. Happiness is healing, joy, and longevity; correct sex yields infinite happiness. Pain is incurable disease, depression, and death; incorrect sex yields infinite pain. Correct sex spreads happiness among individuals, their progeny, and society. Incorrect sex—that is, sex used as a weapon against others, as a license for promiscuity, or as an immoral profit generator—causes social decay. The ultimate purpose of this book is to point out a pathway of righteousness.
These days, I’ve had what you call a friend with benefits, and so wonder if it’s possible to have “correct sex” or “happy sex” while living alone and occasionally sharing a bed with a partner who may not be for life. And we certainly cannot yet call sex a “pathway to righteousness.” Ghosts of relationships past and present are in the bedroom. Rooms hold memory.
To further complicate things, ghosts have not always been just metaphorical or allegorical for me, they can be literal. It was some years ago just before I met my second husband, when I thought I was hearing or feeling ghosts — subtle bodies, presences — outside of dreaming. I kept this to myself until one day at my parents’ house in front of the television with my father, I blurted out: Daddy, I think I’m seeing ghosts. He responded without a beat, still looking at the TV but in the kind of lyrical tone that comes with the remembrance of a favorite song: Ah, that used to bother you as a child. Like it was nothing, like it was perhaps even sweet.
What a relief that was to hear, considering my dad leads with logic and with reason. In his youth, he was a tall Little Man Tate whose mathematical genius sent him to college at 15. In the sixties he computed trajectories to the moon in the space program. He became an actuary, then a CEO, now he is retired. I used to have to play a daily game of chess with him, and for extra pocket money, my sisters and I had to “name that composer” to whatever movement he chose to lay the needle down on the turntable. Now he and I have regular talks in his library that remind me of those daily games. We discuss the rational, the philosophical, the spiritual, and then just as I always lost to him in chess, I get caught up in the game of analyzing the realms of existence, the wheel of samsara, where the Hungry Ghosts preside in the second lowest of the six.
Where would my friend and I be on the wheel of samsara? I don’t think I ever considered celibacy as seriously as others have. In avoidance of addiction, need or desire for sex, monks, yogis, and the Sufis (along with tenets of the Abrahamic religions) toe the line of celibacy. Before the first Western female Sufi master, Irina Tweedie, fully surrendered to the path of realization in the early sixties, her guru sped up the burn of the dross of any attachment to sex. In the diary of her sometimes excruciating training, Daughter of Fire, she describes the result of his Muladhara Chakra activation at the base of her spine:
The most terrifying night of my life began. Never, not even in its young days, had this body known anything, even faintly comparable or similar to this! This was not just desire — it was madness in its lowest, animal form, a paroxysm of sex-craving […] and the sensation was painful.
The following night is even worse as Tweedie describes the gray whirling mist that formed beings, animals, ghouls, and humans having orgies on her bedroom walls. Hungry Ghosts appeared to her nightly for weeks until sex came to represent a horror show and she was cured forever of her desire.
I am more aligned with the Taoists than Tweedie in this respect, and I don’t think I would ever want to be cured of my desire. In Chang’s The Tao of Sexology once more:
From the Taoist viewpoint, practicing celibacy is about the most harmful thing you can do to your body. Denying attention or the right to function to any part of your body is foolish, as foolish as rejecting the use of your eyes and ears. Not using any portion of your body for its normal purpose will create a harmful imbalance which can affect every other part of your body, since all bodily functions are interconnected.
But sex could never be strictly a matter of interconnected bodily functions. What always exists is the energy between two people that transcends the moving body parts. Apart from our strong physical attraction, the fact that my friend can sense other energies beyond the physical plane is partly why we connected. I don’t have to tread as lightly with him, he’s not intimidated by the subject, as really no one should be. The sixth sense is essentially no more unusual than knowing who is calling you on the phone before answering, and far less mystical than knowing someone is staring at you from behind. It can be as thick as walking into the smog of an argument, as common as the experience of déjà vu, and impressive as a prescient dream. Having a feeling that you shouldn’t turn that corner, take that job, or that plane, for whatever reason, is based on gut, pure intuition. When the award winners say they feel their dear departed parents looking down proudly, I believe them. Not because I am like James Van Praagh, Lisa Williams, or the other John Edwards, but because I have had similar incidental experiences, including a few that I feel have been verified, confirmed. In response to my penchant for the uncanny, my mother gave me a vintage “Ghostbusters” T-shirt.
“Mysticism and exaggeration go together,” Milan Kundera wrote. “A mystic must not fear ridicule if he is to push all the way to the limits of humility or the limits of delight.” From mystic delight to ecstasy: the tantric practice is what guides us. Emerging before the middle of the first millennium C.E., Buddhist Tantras are widely believed to have come before Hindu Tantras, though some scholars disagree. Goddess-devoted and essentially an equalizing or integration of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, and nirvana, the ultimate union with bliss, tantric sex becomes sacred. Ken Wilber explains in A Brief History of Everything:
Tantra, in the general sense, presents the ultimate Nondual reality as the sexual embrace of God and the Goddess, of Shiva and Shakti, of Emptiness and Form. Neither Ascent nor Descent is final, ultimate, or privileged, but rather, like primordial yin and yang, they generate each other, depend upon each other, cannot exist without the other, and find their own true being by dying into the other, only to awaken together, joined in bliss, as the entire Kosmos, finding that eternity is wildly in love with the productions of time, the nondual Heart radiating as all creation, and blessing all creation and singing this embrace for all eternity.
Or maybe sex shouldn’t be taken that seriously. Maybe it’s not as essential for your health as food or sleep, or it doesn’t matter whether or not you think it is. We are always in choice. Knowing what you feel, knowing what you want, or just feeling for what you want to know may be enough, as in this scene from Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi:
They were kissing again. He pulled her underwear aside and slipped his fingers inside her. He stepped back and knelt in front of her, kissing her stomach. Her hands were by her sides, on the desk. He licked down her stomach and then moved lower so that he could smell and see her. She reached down to hold her underwear aside. He stayed there motionless, inhaling deeply through his nose, exhaling through his open mouth. Only his breath touched her. Neither of them moved.
La petit mort, little death, orgasm. Though my friend is golden and handsome, the expression of lust on his face can get so intense he looks like Frankenstein, and I am happy to be devoured by a monster. So this would be us as Hungry Ghosts — both looking to be filled up, satiated by a moment of intense connection with life force, transcendence. But what matter of the heart? Are we hungry for sex or just hungry for higher love? I believe it’s the latter.