With Dr. Deborah Taj Anapol, Ph.D. and Taber Shadburne, MA
Deborah: I’ve noticed that when people talk about the union of sexuality and spirituality what they usually mean is taking sex and putting some ritual around it. All well and good but there’s more to it than this. When I hear the word “spirituality,” I think of remembering my true identity. Not the body, not the mind, not the personality, but something larger and unlimited that knows I don’t really have a separate existence apart from the whole. To me that’s what spirituality is about, coming from that place. That’s the essence of it. This experience of oneness is the spiritual intent behind all ritual. As we know, rituals can become empty and meaningless. So putting ritual and sex together means nothing in and of itself.
Taber: A lot of very different things get talked about as spirituality. What I call an awareness oriented spiritual practice is very different from ritually oriented spirituality. It doesn’t necessarily exclude rituals, but the context is different.
Deborah: What do you mean by awareness oriented spiritual practice?
Taber: My background is in Zen Buddhism. In that context, the emphasis is not on forms of any kind, but rather on the awareness in which the forms arise and pass. Not on the contents of experience, but on the process of moment to moment experiencing. There is a dis-identification with forms, shifting one’s sense of identity from the contents of consciousness to the consciousness itself. There is a dissolving of one’s sense of identity, transforming the sense of self. On this path, the primary spiritual practice is bringing compassionate awareness to the contents of experience—thoughts, sensations, emotions —and noticing them as contents of experience, without being identified with them.
Deborah: My background is more with the non-dual traditions of Advaita and Kashmiri Tantra as well as the Bhakti traditions of Sufism and Yoga. But all of these awareness oriented practices as you call them, lead to a direct experience of Self, of a larger beingness, a space with the capacity to know.
Taber: As one dis-identifies with the flow of thought and emotion, it tends to slow down and become more transparent. And as compulsive thought and emotion drops away, there is a radical shift in your sense of self.
Deborah: One of the attractions that sex holds for people is that sometimes it propels us out of the mind into direct experience. But not necessarily. You could engage in sex and be in your head the whole time, or be very focused on the goal of having an orgasm, or a bigger and better orgasm, and not have an expansive experience at all.
Taber: Sex has the potential to either help liberate us from the ego, or to be a very ego driven activity— probably the primary activity, in fact, that (at least male) egos are preoccupied with!
Deborah: So surrounding sex with ritual can be a reminder to approach it from a more conscious place, but it doesn’t always work.
Taber: Right, because ego can get very attached to rituals.
Deborah: The same thing can happen with multi-partner sexual rituals. As I discuss in Polyamory in the 21st Century, the potential is there for a very liberating experience but it can also bring up all kinds of unresolved sexual and relationship issues. If you get identified with the emotions and fail to recognize the opportunity for personal work, it can turn into a nightmare.
Taber: One falls prey to what Chogyam Trungpa aptly called “spiritual materialism.” In other words, the elements of ritual or polyamory or tantra become new shiny toys for ego to become breathlessly infatuated with: “this is so cool!” One becomes attached to the contents of experience, lost in the land of the mind.
Deborah: People get very caught up in Tantric technique—to last longer, to move the energy, to…
Taber: …have the ultimate mind-blowing orgasm.
Deborah: Even just to have a deeper connection with your partner, to give and receive more pleasure. And there’s nothing wrong with these things. In fact, they’re great. But it’s not the full Tantric experience.
Taber: Having an agenda is somewhat antithetical to the awareness oriented spirituality we’ve been talking about. Having a goal, trying to get somewhere, is usually an egoic preoccupation.
Deborah: This is why certain segments of the spiritual community feel that celibacy is the best path. It also has something to do with the mistrust of sexuality by the spiritual community, recognizing that it can lead you away from, rather than toward, a more spiritual life.
Taber: The spiritual goal, often times, has been a taming of ego-based desire—being motivated by a compassionate or loving impulse, rather than by greed or fear. Sex is looked upon as the ultimate manifestation of greed and selfish desire, and so it gets quarantined. But then the problems really start—because that which we try to exclude from our spirituality inevitably comes back to bite us in the ass. It comes back in a more destructive form (witness all the scandal lately in the Catholic Church with their supposedly celibate clergy). The problem, however, is not with celibacy itself, any more than it is with sex. Celibacy, consciously undertaken for a period of time, can be a helpful practice. But religion usually gets moralistic about sex, makes it “bad,” and encourages repression.
Deborah: Osho said, “Sex is the beginning, and if you miss the beginning you will also miss the ending.” You need to be open to fully exploring sexualove if this is where your attention is drawn, but if you stop there, thinking, “OK, now I’ve embraced my sexuality; this is it!” you miss a whole other level.
Taber: The mind always wants to divide things into categories, and into different camps in the way that you just described, camps like sexuality and spirituality, what’s good and what’s bad. But awareness-oriented spiritual practice is ultimately non-dualistic; it’s all about noticing those dichotomies that the mind creates, and not being suckered in by them, realizing that they are arbitrary and potentially problematic.
And that’s where the traditional Tantra movement (at least in Buddhism) arose in response to the moralistic and puritanical trends that had developed within the religion. The word tantra comes from the root “to weave,” and the movement was about weaving back into your life all of the aspects that had been moralistically excluded from spiritual practice by the religion. So they had rituals that involved eating meat (which was forbidden by the orthodoxy) or drinking a little alcohol, as well as sexual elements. But sex in that context was approached as a meditation.
Deborah: To see if you could dance with the devil, to see if you could fully experience sexual desire, sexual passion, without getting lost in it.
Taber: Without going to sleep.
Deborah: Without coming out of your meditative state.
Taber: Exactly. But then all of those more esoteric practices are easily co-opted, re-appropriated by the content-oriented mindset, by popular religious practice, which gets attached to the forms and rituals and such. But my understanding of the heart of Tantra is that it is awareness-oriented, non-dualistic.
Deborah: But many schools of tantra fell right back into the dualistic mindset.
Taber: Yes, that’s what I mean. The mind is always trying to recapture the space, to re-categorize experience, to re-create its precious dichotomies. And then it privileges one half of each dichotomy over the other—this is good and that is bad.
Deborah: As someone rooted in the spiritual community I wonder what sort of impressions you might have about polyamory and Tantra and the various sacred sexuality communities and practices. I’m asking you to put out whatever judgments you might have as well as, hopefully, a more objective perception of what it’s about, and what its usefulness might be.
Taber: My experience of the tantra community is limited, so my biases are not really based on much …
Deborah: But that’s probably typical of people in the spiritual community, and I’m interested in how you all perceive Tantra and the sex positive communities.
Taber: OK, my biased impression has been that modern American Tantra, as a spiritual path, is somewhat incomplete. While it, understandably, wants to emphasize pleasure as the path to awakening, and rescue pleasure from the bad rap that it’s gotten in the historical religious context, I haven’t seen it address the more difficult or painful aspects of practice, which I think are unavoidable. There are difficult, challenging aspects of serious spiritual practice, and you need a way of understanding and working with them. I’ve imagined Tantra to be a “feel-good “(in the fluffy sense) approach to spirituality, and not very challenging (in the good sense).
Deborah: I can understand how you would have that impression, and yet that’s not been my experience, even in the totally feel-good, Neo-tantra groups. Take G-spot massage, which might be considered a feel good experience, but more often than not it’s a very intense, and not necessarily pretty experience at first. The men have to be warned that anything can and does come up – rage, memories of sexual abuse, shame, physical pain – all kinds of shadow material has to be cleared and it can be a long time before sexual pleasure is accessed. And prostate massage can be the same. But this seems more like a psychological process than a spiritual process, so I’m wondering if you could say what you mean by the difficult aspects of spiritual practice. There’s a huge range of things that are offered under the banner of Tantra. It depends a lot on the background of the teacher. Some of them might be more accurately called Sex Education, or Sexual Healing, which is valuable, but not necessarily spiritual in the sense you’re talking about. Pelvic Heart Integration, for example, leans much more in the direction of integrating developmental, interpersonal, and transpersonal issues through direct experiences with the body.
Taber: I include the psychological within the spiritual. I’m talking about a confrontation with your own egoic tendencies, a confrontation with your own ways of creating suffering for yourself and others. I’m talking about engaging and working with the process of how you create your own suffering and then spread it around. Again, I’ve only been exposed to what I’m sure are “pop” versions of tantra, but I haven’t seen that process addressed by them. I’ve only seen, as you described, ritual approaches to sex, which offer the promise of being more healing and more intimate than the usual approach to sex, but I haven’t experienced it as a comprehensive spiritual path. And I’ve also imagined—from the marketing and everything—that it was capitalizing on people’s fascination with sex.
Deborah: Certainly, the marketing and the commercial aspect of it comes into conflict with a lot of spiritual tradition, where it’s unheard-of to charge for spiritual teaching. I do often see spiritual retreats offered where people are asked to pay a fee (sometimes fairly large) for room and board, but the teaching is separate and by donation (sometimes the donation is pretty heavily demanded, but it is officially differentiated). For myself, I put a price on what I offer, but if somebody comes to me and I get that they’re sincere in wanting to learn but don’t have the money, I’ll generally waive my portion but ask them to pay the cost of room and board. In marketing Tantra retreats, in a way, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of people’s interest in sex. But then there can be tremendous resistance to opening to the spiritual dimension, particularly when you’re dealing with people who are addicted to sex or to drugs. The addiction is there in the first place as a way of avoiding taking responsibility for your own suffering, but I try to make it a doorway into another way of life. I see my work in sexuality as using the desire that people have for sex and love as a means of motivating people to get interested in their own evolution. Now you might say that that’s not necessary, or that it’s a manipulation, that when people are ready they’ll go seek a teacher and that you don’t have to position yourself to appeal to them.
Taber: Not necessarily, I just happen to be coming from the opposite end of the tunnel; I lived in a Zen Center for a couple years, and let me tell you, there’s nothing less “sexy” than a Zen meditation retreat. For a week, you spend almost all of your time sitting still and staring at a wall. It’s beyond boring (not much to lure people in with). Of course, ego can still get a very excited about what a virtuous thing I’m doing by engaging in this heroic or ascetic practice, and that’s the pitfall of this kind of path. But the potential benefit is that it doesn’t cater reflexively to the ego’s desire for bells and whistles.
Deborah: I’m thinking that if I had tried to do 10-day meditation retreat before I turned 50, I would have just been sitting there staring at the wall and struggling with my sexual desire. Has that happened for you or people you talk to?
Taber: Many people spend a fair amount of meditation time engrossed in sexual fantasies. That’s not been the case for me, particularly, but sure, I watch sexual thoughts and feelings come and go, along with all the other stuff. Or I’ve found myself casing out the other meditators, which isn’t a recommended part of the practice. But that’s been educational to watch myself do, in silence. It’s been educational to be in silence and watch myself strategize, and see what a desperate little activity that can be.
Deborah: I wasn’t talking about sexual fantasies or strategies. I very rarely fantasize. I meant I would be overwhelmed by pure sexual energy. Of course this might have something to do with the fact that in the past much of the time that I would spend long periods of time in a deep meditative state, I would have some kind of psychedelic in my body, so that may have exaggerated the energy and sexual direction of my experience. But there’s always been a lot of sexual energy moving in my body and as soon as I slowed down enough to notice it, it got even bigger.
Taber: So you would’ve been sitting in meditation feeling turned on.
Deborah: Yes, and having kundalini going up my spine, having kriyas, and wanting a release of some kind and not being able to get there through pure meditation.
Taber: Part of the meditative approach (at least in Buddhism) is to be present with whatever sort of vivid experiences, without having to do anything about them. You bring compassion and equanimity to whatever is going on, and experience it fully, without either feeding it or fighting it. The compassionate equanimity is the point. You might have extreme discomfort and agitation, or you might have “holy visions,” but the attitude toward all of it would be basically the same: “that’s very interesting and it’s no big deal.”
Deborah: Yes, I resonate with that, at this point, but in the past, the amount of energy I felt was really too much for me to sit still and contain. Tantric practices really helped me move the energy. And then finally the Pelvic Heart integration work began to show me how to be with my own energy. So now I can enjoy sitting meditation, but sometimes at retreats I’ve thought this is out of balance; I’m doing all this meditation and I’m tuning into my experience and I’m expanding my awareness, but what about the body? It’s been sitting here for hours, and it doesn’t feel very comfortable, and it would really like a massage. I would be more relaxed if I were doing yoga or tai chi or something that incorporates the body. For me, in the past, sex was the most fun way to incorporate the body into my meditative practice. But the truth is, most often, I found it extremely challenging to totally stay with the meditative state, and take that intensive energy awareness, and bring it into a physical experience, bring it into sexual union. When I was able to do that it was pretty awesome, but love making while meditating is considered a very advanced practice – not so accessible to the average person.