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Beyond Either/Or

How to Order by Jay Kinney

I first became acquainted with the knotty issue of sex and spirituality during the summer, nearly twenty years ago, when I turned twenty-one. That was the summer when I was diligently taking intermediate hatha yoga classes at the Integral Yoga Institute, eating a vegetarian diet, recording all my dreams in a journal, and living a strictly celibate life. The celibacy had come about partly in reaction to a brief affair that had ended on a sour note, and partly due to Swami Satchidananda's guru.

You see, Swami Satchidananda was the organizing force behind the Integral Yoga Institute and as such was my mentor of the moment. He was (and still is, as far as I know) a benign and pleasant teacher of yoga and meditation; in fact he was so pleasant that he struck me as bordering on the innocuous, so I impatiently figured I'd get into some "heavier" material by checking out some writings by his guru, a rather stern-looking swami by the name of Sivananda.

While Satchidananda would make lighthearted jokes about us all being "fritters in the frying pan of life," Sivananda pulled no punches. As I recall, he had little patience for getting caught in the traps of maya, and he strongly exhorted against indulging one's sexual desires. In one typical sermon he intoned against the illusory attractions of women and likened physical bodies to "decaying bags of gas," a poetic turn of phrase that stuck in my mind.

In my youthful effort to be as spiritually pure as possible, I wandered the streets of Brooklyn that summer trying to simultaneously see everyone I met as a rotting gasbag and as a manifestation of God. Needless to say this was not an easy task, and by summer's end my spirits were beginning to flag. I was beginning to realize that the level of spiritual practice and attainment that I was aiming for was, in Indian culture, usually reserved for older adults to pursue in their retirement years after they had already raised a family.

Consequently, when my roommate returned to our art school dorm apartment and started waving fried chicken beneath my nose I knew that I was a goner. The yoga class ended, my vegetarian diet disintegrated, and I had the flash of insight that it would be foolish for me, at age twenty-one, to deny myself the pleasures of a steady girlfriend. Let Sivananda practice the strict celibacy he preached - after all, judging from his photos, he was a decaying bag of gas. I, on the other hand, was supposed to be near my sexual peak, and I decided that I might as well make the most of it.

I had not reckoned, however, with the power of internalized repression. Having just spent several months intentionally short-circuiting my sex drive, I found that it now took an equal amount of time to deprogram myself from viewing sexual desires as snares and delusions, and my girlfriend as a gasbag. Mercifully, time heals all wounds - even those induced by swamis - and my bout of severe "mind/body split" ended happily. But to this day, decades later, the question of fitting sex and spirituality together into a workable whole has remained a fascinating puzzle.

What exactly is the problem anyway? Why is there one in the first place? If we look back to the roots of our Western monotheistic religions, it seems apparent that the moral systems erected by those religions served the purpose of providing guidance for the great majority of people to live in a reasonable semblance of order with each other. In the interest of avoiding incest, identifying the parentage of children, limiting the spread of disease, and other hallmarks of civilization, sexual behavior was fenced in with rules and taboos. While this control undoubtedly allowed our societies to evolve up to our present time, it also exacted a certain price: the basic perception of sex as a problem.

In similar fashion, the codifying and institutionalizing of the "religions of the Book" assured their preservation, but, here too, at a price: people's spiritual lives were increasingly externalized and the transcendant aspects of the Divine were emphasized.

The result was a profound alienation from one's self - including alienation from the intuitions of one's "higher self" or divine spark within, and from the impulses produced by our instinctual drives, including the sex drive. The more that people were encouraged to look to externally-enforced rules for guidance, the more they came to distrust their own feelings and desires.

[It should be noted at this point that I am not suggesting that prior to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam people were somehow perfectly inner-directed individualists. No doubt very few were. However, the decisive influence of our monotheistic religions, with their emphasis on scripture and laws, had the effect of discouraging such inner promptings.]

Given this state of affairs in our exoteric religions, it comes as no surprise that the esoteric traditions served as champions for the repressed. Just as the Feminine was preserved in esoteric teachings and myths about the Shekhinah, the Tree of Life, Sophia, the Black Virgin, etc. in the face of the predominantly masculine mainstream, so the esoteric traditions encouraged inner knowledge and mysticism in the face of externally-oriented alienation.

According to some theories, part of this esoteric inner-knowledge was the use and awareness of sex (and sexual energy) as a means to encourage mystical states of consciousness. Indeed, it has been suggested that such sexual practices were the secret teachings of everyone from the ancient Gnostics up through the Cathars, the Templars, and the alchemists, to modern-day Neo-pagans and magicians. The evidence for this alluring notion is slim, but its very persistence suggests a more certain truth: that one doesn't challenge self-alienation and enkindle the Divine within without making peace with one's sexual side.

Making that peace can take many forms, and the defenders of one approach do not always agree with the proponents of others. Those who view full orgasmic release as crucial for our health and well-being are unlikely to see eye to eye with advocates of coitus reservatus. Similarly, those who emphasize the virtue of a joyful but prudent sexual life with God at its center are unlikely to have much enthusiasm for fans of sex magick who hope that dabbing energized sexual "quintessence" on their Lotto ticket may help them win the state lottery.

Gathered together in this issue are several such perspectives (although I don't think we have any Lotto dabbers present), and I will leave it for you to decide which may have the most meaning for you. As you read along you might simply keep in mind the lesson that I inadvertantly learned nearly twenty years ago: that the seemingly "heaviest" perspective is not always the healthiest, and that there may be unforeseen results no matter what position you take!

(c) copyright 1990 by Jay Kinney

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