The Spirit of Health: Restoring Passion to the Bedroom
“This is the monstruosity in love, lady — that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.” — Shakespeare’s Troilus, before making love to Cressida.
With respect to sexual desire, the discrepancy between one’s aspirations and the reality often underlies its waning. Stated succinctly in market terminology, when a product doesn’t match its stated hype, demand falls.
Nowhere in medicine does a problem have so many delicate and nuanced inputs as libido. I always remember patients who defy this general rule, like the 35 year-old woman whose periods suddenly stopped for no good reason. One month later she found herself watching a steamy movie and was surprised to feel absolutely nothing. “Like a pre-adolescent old girl,” she told me, “I understood what was happening between the actors, but didn’t feel the usual stirring in the pelvis. My husband’s affections didn’t evoke any passion.”
Women are endowed with 40-50,000 ovarian follicles at birth, and hers had simply run out. Within one month of starting estrogen and progesterone replacement her love life was fine. If only every patient with a libido problem had such an easy solution!
Shakespeare’s succinct diagnosis of most problems with sexual fulfillment lies in the divergence between the infinite and unbounded nature of the soul and the confined and limited nature of the act. The nature and purpose of life is the expansion of happiness. Life is about change, and as long as it seems to be in the direction of progress, we perceive it to be satisfying and easy.
Many people sense that the most profound experience of infinity can ultimately only come from a spiritual connection with the boundless itself, that is, unity with the divine. Because spiritual experiences are elusive and abstract, on the path to the divine we not only content ourselves with, but even crave more concrete ones: connectedness with material expressions of that infinity including art, music and relationships. The most intimate of these surrogate experiences of infinity is the losing of our body’s physical boundaries as it merges with another. Sexuality, our most primal desire, as compelling as eating and sleeping, is the expression of our need to progress and expand. More pleasure plus more progeny. Making love with your partner or even entering into a brief but torrid affair, as much as we hate to admit it, comes from the same primordial impulse for expansion of happiness that motivates us to attend church, to meditate or give to charity.
It is recorded that Yajñavalkya, a seer and devoted husband, before leaving his dutiful wife for the life of a recluse, asked if he could answer any last burning questions. She asks, “What should I do with something that cannot make me immortal?” Her spouse replies, “You have always been dear to me. The husband is dear to the wife not for the sake of the husband, but it is for her own sake that he is dear. And the wife is dear to the husband not for the sake of the wife, but it is for his own sake that she is dear.” And so on, he explains, for children, parents, and wealth.
Reflections of Self Love
Whenever we love, it is always the Self that is loved: a higher Self, not the small finite self of our skin-covered frame. The object of love (spouse, kids, friends) is the medium through which the Self is reflected. When you fall in love, your lover is allowing you a glimpse into the infinite nature of the divine within yourself. Caring for your child out of love, as exasperating as it may be at times, is a vehicle for you to experience the unboundedness of the Self. “It is the time you lost on account of your rose that makes your rose so important,” the fox told Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince.
Depending on the clarity of your own nervous system, the value of love is reflected everywhere differently. If you are anxious or depressed, even a handsome, attentive lover will be seen in that light, and precious little of your infinite Self will be appreciated. The nature of the relationship is also a filter for the infinite. You may pick someone who is not available, whom you see once a month or always has a bone to pick. The Self becomes diluted to a wisp of its cosmic status.
Yet when the lover, the beloved and the relationship between them are in harmony, the three become as one. The physical and emotional understanding of this paradox, how multiplicity can also be unity, is the spiritual experience of love. The experience is often unconscious; we don’t know what is happening within, we just feel more freedom. Sexual union is the rite in which this experience of the juxtaposition of infinity and unity is most concrete and available to our awareness. It can be had by just about anyone with a human physiology, albeit for only a moment in time. Flirting, courting, romancing, seducing, caressing, and flattering are powerful primal impulses that bring us to the moment of unity. For a brief moment, everything about the changing, decaying nature of our body and life dissolves in an experience of oneness, silence and power. Our partner is the path. We look in her/his eyes and we see our Self reflected there. We have become all that.
1% Good Sex
“Good sex” is when this experience is profound and effortless and leaves us changed, wiser, and stronger. But in reality, something is always missing. Things don’t lead to our expectations. The problem invariably is that we have expectations. In other words, we are looking for infinity in something finite, which can often come close, but never quite be infinity.
Expectations means that we have a pre-conceived notion of what we want to happen and feel, and it can never be the same twice. We anticipate something specific, and in looking for it, we miss a sweet, subtle sensation that may be equally pleasurable, but is different from our pre-determined plan. We are left unsatisfied and with time this leads to frustration and even anger at the partner that can’t satisfy us.
We see them as unresponsive lovers. This leads to a decrease in desire that in turn produces the seeds of physical dysfunction. Now, a little frustration has resulted in erections that aren’t strong, or for women, a lack of arousal with its resultant lubrication and relaxation of the pelvic muscles, or even vaginismus, a painful spasm of the vaginal muscles that overshadows any pleasure. With this, enjoyment in the union goes from waning to gone, and the vicious cycle spirals downward.
“Good sex” also implies that you have to be able to lose yourself temporarily, lose yourself in your partner. This requires trust. Like riding on the back seat of a tandem bicycle, you turn your fate over to your partner. When trust is not a firmly established part of the relationship, any insignificant breach of confidence or loyalty makes the prospect of submitting your body to another repulsive. In short, letting go can best happen when you feel good about your lives together. The main value of alcohol and other similar “lubricants” in increasing sexual desire is to make us throw this caution to the wind.
Youthful innocence makes every experience fresh. Older scientists prefer working with naïve minds that attack their problems from a new perspective. Innocence allows people to bring fewer expectations to sexual encounters. Youth helps, but any familiarity breeds expectations. The only cure for familiarity, other than changing partners, is learning to always make love as if for the first time. Meditation, yoga, and a few other spiritual practices help culture the attitude of innocence and greatly enhance the sexual experience, which then, in turn, becomes a spiritual event. The Kama Sutra and other ancient texts are not so much how-to manuals but spiritual treatises, guiding us in how to make sexual union an experience of merging with the divine.
Youth helps sex in other ways: tissues are suppler, strong, and elastic, including not just genital organs but also joints. Desire and energy have a greater range than from only 9 to10 pm. As we get older on the other hand, we are less self-conscious, but we also accumulate more physical issues to be embarrassed about such as weight, wrinkles and cellulite, and with these, more barriers to letting go.
For some people in andropause or menopause, there is the magic bullet of appropriately prescribed testosterone (for both sexes) or estrogen to turn a flagging libido into the sex life they had before. But for most of us, that magic bullet lies in the behavioral aphrodisiacs that restore youthful vigor: exercise to increase energy and stamina, weight loss to improve one’s self image and endurance, yoga and stretching to keep the pelvis and back supple, meditation for the brain to regain its youthful innocence, and respect and consideration for your partner during the 99% of your time together that you aren’t making love.
Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist in Massachusetts.