Integrating Spirituality and Sexuality
Take a look at the world around us and it becomes readily apparent that we are living in a time of simultaneous convergence and deconstruction. As there is a resurging interest in spiritual practices in many circles, there is also a breakdown in the patriarchal, hierarchical church structures. The specter of clergy sexual abuse intermingles with a worldview promulgated by the church about the nature of relationships and sexuality that no longer has meaning for people today — men and women, young and even middle-aged. The gender roles we were raised with have broken down and blurred. The image of nuclear family as mom, dad and 2.4 children has been superceded by a far greater spectrum of family possibilities. Bisexuality, androgyny, gender fluidity and polyamory are more and more common, especially among the twentysomething generation. As we live with breakdown and deconstruction at so many levels of life, one thread that emerges is a hunger and longing, both spiritual and erotic. Suzanne Blackburn, whose participation in sexuality and spirituality work has catapulted her personal and spiritual growth reflects, “We are in a culture of dis-remembering in a lot of ways including the natural flow of erotic energies through and around us. Alex Jade of the Body Electric School uses the term ‘erotic amnesia.’ A lot of work is now available to help us re-member.”
Erotic energy is far more than sexual energy. It is life energy. As our culture has evolved splits between mind and body, head and heart, heart and pelvis and sexuality and spirituality, we have forgotten what it means to be fully alive.
“Erotic energy is not just about having sex,” continues Blackburn, “It is about living.” As we have become disconnected from our bodies, hearts, souls, spirits, one another and the divine, we have lost touch with many of the most beautiful pleasures and experiences possible in being human. So many people today are searching for meaning and purpose, most often expressed through job dissatisfaction, addictions and broken or troubled relationships. The rise of industrialization, urbanization, the nation-state, global dislocations, war and poverty all contribute to the sex-spirit split for us both individually and collectively.
“Because our culture has repressed sexuality so much, it is repressing everything,” acknowledges Blackburn. “People who have repressed sexuality have also repressed other areas of their lives. If you are not joyful about your sexuality, it is hard to be joyful about watching a sunset or watching kittens play. Hopefully, by breathing life into one, you breathe life into all of it. It’s like giving birth. When the baby comes out of the birth canal and takes a breath, the baby pinks up. When we open up, breathe deeply, have fun, when we dance, we pink up.” This backdrop provides fertile soil for an emerging movement working to integrate sexuality and spirituality.
Living in the Midst of a Paradigm Shift
Bob Francouer, a teacher of graduate and undergraduate classes in Human Sexuality at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the editor of the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality notes, “Sexuality and spirituality have always been joined and interwoven from the very beginning of the human race. It is only in the last 2000 to 3000 years of Western civilization that the two have been separated. And they have not just been separated, but have been seen as antagonistic to each other. The split between sex and spirit came out of the Greek philosophy of dualism, and a dichotomous view of humans as matter/evil/female and spirit/good/rational/male.”
Just as Western civilization went through a period of major cultural upheaval 2000 to 3000 years ago, we are undergoing a period of major cultural turnover and paradigm shift now. “The institutional churches are losing their credibility in dealing with sexuality and spirituality. They are losing their authority,” continues Francouer. Francouer is well versed in the changing paradigm worldwide. The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality is written by 300 experts in 60 countries on 6 continents. The encyclopedia includes in-depth reports of all aspects of sexuality. Each country has a section on religious and ethnic influences. Having collected information from many cultures all over the world, “it becomes very clear the spiritual traditions are undergoing major revolutions in their patterns of thinking. People in many cultures worldwide are thinking now not in terms of marital and procreational values, but in terms of individual self-enrichment and fulfillment. The spiritual is a very important part of the new perspective.”
Significant leadership in the sexuality and spirituality is coming from women. Francouer acknowledges, “As women in developing nations are exposed to Western concepts and experiences of human sexuality, they are linking their religious traditions with the visions of Western sexuality. As women become more empowered in third world nations, they are gaining more control over their bodies and sexuality, turning more to their spiritual heritage.”
“When the human psyche reaches the point of convergence and breakthrough into a new level of consciousness,” reflects Francouer, “diversity is the first thing that happens. The energy spreads out and explores all kinds of possibilities. There is no one ideal paradigm nor five ideal paradigms. All the models we have had in the past have real difficulties being applied in today’s world. So people are creating their own models and patterns.” The new paradigms created need to include and consider the collective as well as the individual.
A Quiet Movement and Its Roots
The emergence of the sexuality and spirituality movement is very quiet. For one, the subjects of sexuality and spirituality are each daunting. Many people are frightened at the thought of delving more deeply into either one. Too, Ani Colt, publisher of Spirituality and Sexuality magazine and founder of the Sexuality and Spirituality Union Network (SUNetwork) points out, “One of the things that energized a lot of movements was the common experience of feeling oppressed. A sense of oppression contributed to the emergence of blacks, women and homosexuals. But the oppression of our sexuality is not even recognized because sex is always in front of us. It’s in ads, on TV, in the movies. It is much more subtle oppression. As a result, it hasn’t given us that organizing energy that has created the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.”
Sex educator, sex coach and author Loraine Hutchins adds, “Erotophobia/ sex-negativity is hard to battle because it is all pervasive and systemic. It doesn’t affect any one group at the expense of another like racism. However, erotophobia, like racism, really hurts everyone and diminishes us all. I think sex-negativity is a function of heterosexism, a system of oppression created by patriarchy, involving male supremacy and mandatory heterosexuality. This oppressive system hurts men as well as women. The parallel is in looking at how whites are made less by racism, in contrast to non-whites. The hurts are different and need different remedies.”
“Organized religion is of little help in the sexuality-spirituality field,” Shalom Mountain Retreat Center founder Gerry Jud acknowledges. “I make a big distinction between religion and spirituality. Religion is about controlling behavior. Spirituality is about development and liberation of consciousness — becoming consciousness itself. Sex permeates all of life. When people are intimate with each other, touch each other, look into each other’s eyes, dance ecstatically with each other, the sexual component is out front. You cannot take an effective spiritual journey without taking into account that we are sexual beings.”
The first nationwide survey on sexuality and spirituality was conducted by Gina Ogden, a sexuality therapist and author of Women Who Love Sex: An Inquiry into the Expanding Spirit of Women’s Erotic Experiences. She is presently writing a book based on her survey results and hopes that the data will provide a baseline for broadening definitions of human sexuality, especially for women. Oggen contends that the field of sexology itself has reinforced the split between sexuality and spirituality. While she was a visiting scholar at the Radcliffe Institute, she happened upon the earliest sex surveys — conducted by women MDs. “The first survey, a century ago, was filled with hand-written responses about sexuality and spirituality,” notes Ogden. “But since the 1930’s when male scientists took over the surveying of sexual behavior, sex research became focused on what was easy to count and measure — performance by way of intercourse, orgasms and spasms, the mechanical part.” In her 25 years of experience as a clinician and workshop leader, Ogden found these mechanical features to be only a fraction of what women said was important.
“Almost 4000 women and men answered my survey with an outpouring of stories about sexuality and spirituality, about love and empathy and meaning and sex as a direct path to the divine. What is fascinating is that these stories echo the responses from those early surveys, as if they’re filling in almost a hundred years of blanks, the mysterious black holes in the history of the sexuality and spirituality movement. Maybe the scientific arm of the present day movement begins with Clelia Mosher, who conducted that first survey in 1892!” Ogden continues, “There is brain research coming out now because with advanced technology like MRI’s and PET scans we can really look at what is going on in the human brain over a period of time, like stop action. Researchers are finding that during sexual stimulation more than one center of the brain is lighting up. This demonstrates an organic basis for arguing that sexuality and spirituality are connected, that sexual response is multi-dimensional. This is in direct disagreement with all the sex research that focuses on performance, and the medical diagnostics that say if you can’t perform to their standards, it’s called dysfunction. There may be a political and social movement going on, but it’s important to remember that the capacity for connecting sex and spirit is in us. It is in our cells and our brain structure. It is built in. It has taken us 3000 years to remember it, to rediscover it, to validate it.”
A Wide Spectrum of Trainings and Practices
Many trainings, practices, networks and methods have evolved to help people learn to work with sexual, spiritual and life energies in their bodies, relationships and lives. These methods have been developed by visionaries who have built a community or network of people around them. There is some cross-fertilization between these communities, but more often the right hand doesn’t even know there is a left hand yet, never mind what it is doing.
Existing practices and trainings approach integrating sexuality and spirituality from many different directions. For example, the Human Awareness Institute approaches this work from an emotional and interpersonal direction, giving people skills for deeper intimacy and connection through its Love, Intimacy and Sexuality workshops. Tantric work, on the other hand, approaches the body and its energy field from a rootedness in spiritual philosophy. Sterling community work focuses on distinguishing the differences between male and female energy.
One of the common threads amongst the many approaches is the creation of a safe, sacred community circle. Joining together in holy ritual is a basic human need. We are starving for this kind of sacred circle. Trainings and workshops such as those profiled below provide help meet this need. I have selected a handful of significant programs in the sexuality and spirituality field, all of which have evolved over the past several decades. The purpose is to illustrate a range of what is available.
The Human Awareness Institute: Restoring the Purity of Heart and Soul
Stan Dale, 73, founder of the Human Awareness Institute, that has offered love, intimacy and sexuality workshops worldwide for thirty four years, found himself on a path of integrating sexuality and spirituality while stationed in Japan when he was twenty seven years old. Having had a successful career in radio prior to being drafted, Stan worked at the Armed Forces Korea Network while in the service. He was put on temporary duty in Tokyo for the Far East Network, and was invited to a cast party for a motion picture being filmed there, Joe Butterfly. The cast party took place at a geisha house, a stunning 22-acre facility with trees, butterflies and flowers, and buildings that looked like palaces. Through a twist of fate, he ended up living there for seven months when an old man who lived there invited him to stay. The old man told everyone at the geisha house to treat Stan like his son. The head geisha, nearly 70, gave Stan a quartz stone.
“She said to me,” remembers Stan, “‘What do you see?’ I said, ‘A stone.’ She said, ‘Yes…but come back and tell me what you see later.’ This went on for three days. I knew it was a trick. I examined it, had a magnifying glass, asked others what they saw. At the end of the three days, she asked me what I saw. Like a bolt of lightning, I saw the beauty of the universe. The words came out of my mouth.”
“At an event that night, the head geisha stood up. She gave me an honorific bow and said, ‘If you can see the beauty of the universe in a stone, you are now a geisha.’ I hadn’t known what geisha meant, but I sensed it was very special. The geishas taught me to look beyond everything I look at, to listen beyond everything I listen to, to go beyond what I touch. I learned an old adage to live by. If God wanted to hide, God would hide in human beings, because that is the last place we would think to look to find God.”
Stan learned to look for and see the spark of God, the magnificence that is every human being which may be camouflaged or obscured as we take the hard knocks of life. “As we walk through life in this world, the garbage keeps getting dumped on spirit,” notes Stan. Sufficient garbage gets dumped that people don’t recognize their own heart and spirit. “When something is in the body that shouldn’t be there, when it is taken out, it heals itself,” acknowledges Stan. “The heart heals itself. The soul heals itself.”
Just as the heart, soul and spirit get obscured by the garbage of life, sexuality has been equally misunderstood. “When we get the craziness and dirtiness out of the word sex, and put it where it belongs in spirit, heal and soul, then we get purity. My vision is for every human being to be aware that their spirituality and sexuality is who you are, not something you get. My vision is for every person on this planet to see what is available when the garbage is indeed taken out.”
Shalom Mountain Retreat Center: Sustaining Spiritual Growth and Intimacy
Gerry Jud, now 83, is one of the true pioneers in the sexuality and spirituality movement. After getting a Ph.D at Yale, he started his career as a pastor in New Haven, CT. “I became interested in the question of why, in religious groups, the level of intimacy is exquisitely limited. People who get started in the field of a religious path soon level off. The journey comes to a halt. This troubled me as a church person, and so I began to study a way in which intimacy could be found among such people who are seeking a spiritual life, and how it could be sustained.”
He did his research and development work at Kirkridge, a major Protestant retreat center in Bangor, ME. Influenced by leaders in the human potential movement, including the folks at Esalen and in humanistic psychology, Gerry reached a turning point in his work when he worked with primal therapy techniques. “My first wife drowned after seventeen years of marriage. We had three little children. As a religious person, I did the best I could with that tragedy. It wasn’t until I got into primal scream work that I was able to release my anger. That changed everything for me.”
“That led me to see that people on their spiritual journey are not stuck in their conscious minds. They are stuck in the twilight, a deeper subconscious layer that is often inaccessible to the conscious mind.” For people to move forward in their growth work, Gerry recognized they needed to work at this deeper level, which he called the “twilight zone.” He developed a system in which he created an intensely tender, loving group of fifteen people. He would work with each person, one at a time, using deep breathing to put them into an altered state of consciousness.
Gerry initially started working with clergy and their wives, but his work soon grew to include people of all different religions and cultures. He eventually left his church job and founded Shalom Mountain Retreat Center in 1975.
He found his work growing to include sexuality as it became apparent that the journey to God needed to include working with sexuality. Gerry’s pioneering work helped give birth to yet another body of work, the Body Sacred. Suzanne Blackburn describes the Shalom experience as “a beautiful blend of all that we know in modern psychology and all that we know about love. It’s community at its best — a community that holds people to their truths and never withdraws love regardless of that truth.”
Body Electric School: Learning About Erotic Energies
The Body Electric School for Erotic Massage was founded by Joseph Kramer in the early 1980’s. Suzanne Blackburn speaks to the essential contribution of this work. “Kramer realized that men were compartmentalizing orgasm. For most people, initially men, if they were orgasmic, their experience happens within a five inch radius around the genitals. Kramer was interested in developing a body of knowledge to make orgasm a lot more — a full body, full person, full spiritual experience. He went on a quest to find out how to do this and created an experiential school for teaching about erotic energies.”
Kramer drew upon ancient traditions and modern wisdom, and blended this knowledge in a new way that is accessible to men and women today. Body Electric work teaches people to wake up to their own bodies through breath, movement and touch, including Taoist erotic massage.
“Body Electric work translates ancient wisdom into practical exercises people can do in the here and now. We carry these ancient teachings in our bodies. It doesn’t take a whole lot of teaching for our bodies to wake up and remember. Our bodies hold the wisdom,” comments Blackburn. “In our culture it is generally not okay to take your clothes off with strangers, to talk about your genitals and erotic experience. The facilitators of Body Electric workshops are able to create a very safe space that allows people looking to be more alive in their bodies, to heal shame, open to more intimacy, celebrate living, and most importantly, to reconnect genitals and heart.”
Growing out of the AIDS devastation, the sudden linking of sex with death and attempting to recover from this, the school was exclusively for men until twelve years ago. “In response to women’s interests in this work, Joseph sought out women teachers,” chronicles Blackburn. The school currently offers a women’s program and a small mixed gender curriculum.
Sterling Men’s and Women’s Weekends: Distinguishing Between Masculine and Feminine Energy
Sterling work explores the essence of what it means to be male and what it means to be female, and what each gender’s roles and responsibilities can be. The goal is for men and women to be able to come together and have relationships that work.
Joe Boyer, who is involved in leadership in the Northeast region for this work, speaks to the evolution of the men’s and women’s weekends. “Throughout the history of the world, masculine and feminine roles were established that worked for many years. In more recent years of civilization, these roles have unraveled with politics, the industrial age, wars and all the conditions that called for the women’s movement. The women’s movement pushed us towards equality, but this posed new problems. The divorce rate went up. As a society, and as men and women, we had lost touch with the essence of the male and female roles that had worked for millions of years. The more unisexed a couple gets,” reflects Boyer, “the more it loses its vitality.” Rather than becoming androgynous, which implies a melding of gender energies, we need to become more clearly rooted in our masculine and female energies.
An example of the difference between male and female energy is the way each gender feels a sense of essential expression. Men feel a sense of essential expression when they provide and act. Through acting, men connect with the resources of the world, helping do what needs to be done to move things forward. Women feel a sense of essential expression when they nurture and foster connections. To nurture, you have to fully connect with another human being, to be able to plug into another, experience what they are feeling and empathize with them. In this way, women keep the relational fabric of society together.
When we look at the symbols for male and female, the male symbol is like an arrow, pointing or directing, and the female symbol includes a circle, bringing together and including. Men may take women’s nurturing efforts for granted. Unfortunately, women may not recognize the expression of emotional energy by men. When women nurture and when men work, each gender comes from their heart. This expresses an intention to emotionally be there for another. It is their way of trying to emotionally connect. For men and women to relate and get along, being able to recognize and appreciate these essential energies and their expression is fundamental. In this light, Sterling work helps men and women get rooted in that sense of self, so they can then come together to help shape a better world.
The Boston Area Sexuality and Spirituality Network
In response to a groundswell of interest, the Boston Area Sexuality and Spirituality Network was founded in May 2002. The group exists to create a forum for people interested in integrating sexuality and spirituality to meet, dialogue and exchange resources. At the first meeting of BASSN, one of the themes was the need for an umbrella organization that embraced all forms of sexual, spiritual and gender expression. One member stated, “I can find a group of bisexual women pagans, but that group may not dialogue with transgendered Christians or hard-wired straight monogamous people.” BASSN offers an umbrella, welcoming people who identify with the many dimensions of gender identity, orientation, sexual expression and spiritual identity.
What BASSN members have in common is the desire to create a community or tribe where integration is possible, creating a safe space where people can explore and learn from both differences and common threads. The group sponsors monthly meetings, which are like mini-workshops. Topics the group has addressed so far include: what does integrating sexuality and spirituality mean, the essence of gender, safe touch, forms of relationship and sexual energy. The group will be organizing a Sexuality and Spirituality Leadership Forum, gathering together pioneers in the field to share their visions and work, and to see how everyone can work together to support one another and this emerging field.
Conscious Relating: The New Paradigm for Love
While we have made progress in accepting same sex relationships between men and men and women and women, the culture as whole still offers a pretty narrow view of what constitutes an acceptable loving relationship. Our high divorce rate illustrates that even straight heterosexual men and women struggle in the most accepted form of relationship called marriage. Sexuality, intimacy and emotional needs are often difficult to talk about in relationships, and as a result it is hard for many people to be truthful in their expression of their sexuality.
Deborah Taj Anapol, a pioneer in the field of exploring conscious relating and integrating sexuality and spirituality, speaks of the new paradigm for love. “Right now what is occurring in consciousness is a marriage or blending between the masculine and feminine. With this shift comes an understanding of love as consciousness, rather than feelings for an object or love as something finite. The new paradigm for love is one of partnership, rather than a dominance/submissive form of relating.”
Relationships are based on honesty when they come from a climate of mutual respect and emotional safety. In the old paradigm, when relationships fail, partners often distance from themselves and each other with lies of omission and commission. When intimate relationships are formed from a utilitarian base, responding to social expectations, economic necessity, or gender role expectations, it is hard for men and women alike to find an authentic way of relating. When relationships are formed from a more spiritually integrated place, one comes to a partner freely, from a place of unconditional love and choice. When people are ashamed or afraid to admit their needs to themselves, never mind their partners, it is hard to have a paradigm for love. Learning to know ones emotional, sexual and intimate needs becomes a spiritual journey. For many people, alternative lifestyle options are needed for authentic and vital relating and expression. As we move through a paradigm shift, forms of relationship may need to adjust to accommodate our individual and collective growth and change. Committed relationships may range from marriage to God with a celibate lifestyle to polyamorous relationships where people are both emotionally committed and sexual with more than one partner. Some people commit emotionally to a primary relationship with a person of one gender, yet engage sexually with another person or other persons of the other gender. Some individuals and couples choose to study and practice sacred sexuality to increase both their sense of connection and pleasure.
Bob Francouer comments about the shifting paradigm, “I think the outcome is going to be a much greater, more open, tolerant diversity. Once premarital sex was taboo. Today, in many circles, including mainstream circles and even churches, premarital sexual relationships are taken for granted. We will see different lifestyles that are socially responsible and fulfilling for the individuals. As we live into our seventies, eighties, nineties and beyond, some people will change their pattern of relationships.”
Where we will evolve to will be an interesting question. Women are taking a leading role in bringing a sex-spirit integration into the culture. More and more men are realizing they need to heal their wounded hearts to bring themselves more fully into their own lives and relationships. I am excited about the healing potential this emerging movement has for life on Earth. Perhaps, as we reconnect with our bodies, our hearts, our souls and one another we will indeed create a world that can live in greater harmony and peace.
- Spirituality and Sexuality Magazine. This journal is developing a voice for the emerging sexuality and spirituality movement, presenting articles on all facets of integrating sexuality and spirituality, and resources for those who wish to find them. Contact PO Box 786 Westport, CT or email AniColt@aol.com
- The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, edited by Robert Francouer.RTFrancoeu@aol.com
- Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits by Deborah Taj Anapol. Intinet Resource Center, San Rafael, CA
- Women Who Love Sex by Gina Ogden. Womanspirit Press, Cambridge, MA.
Linda Marks, MS, is the founder of the Boston Area Sexuality and Spirituality Network and an active participant in the emerging sexuality and spirituality movement. She has practiced heart-centered, body-centered, psychospiritual therapy for nearly twenty years. She is the author of Living with Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart and is currently writing a series of books addressing issues of sexuality, spirituality and gender. You can reach her at 617-965-7846 orLSMHEART@aol.com.