"if a space is created
in which we are totally free
to reveal our walls
then those walls in time
will come down"
If you are like most practitioners of enlightened sex and relating, you pour energy and creativity into your relationship. You get more connected, safe, trusting, intimate and loving the more time you spend together. You strive for sacred merging in sex. You negotiate the stuffs of daily life and domestic living to create life partnership. Often all this works true wonders: sustainable, hot, loving life partnerships.
But what about when it doesn’t work? Why is it that so often where there is the intimacy, love and familiarity of long-term and life partnership, the sexual spark seems to dim, flicker and perhaps fade altogether? What gives?
Riding high in my own partnership, I am neither blind nor impervious, however, to the dismal track record of most long-term relationships. I set off on a preemptive search in the most light-filled and shadowy places for some guidance for keeping both the erotic zest and the sacred intimacy flourishing in sacred sex and life partnership.
Couples therapist and best-selling author of Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel offers the first gem: “What nurtures love doesn’t always fuel desire.”
Long-term, loving relationships – as well as sacred sex – can become very comfortable, close and safe – in fact that’s part of the point. But when we’ve gotten all intimate, comfy and melded into one, we can lose the very thing needed for erotic vivacity.
And for some, love/intimacy are kept in separate places than the erotic/sexual – and never the two shall meet. Meaning, for some, as love and intimacy increase, the less access they have to the erotic.
We strive for intimacy: to hold nothing back from each other, to share everything. Yet sexual sparkle often feeds on tension, polarity, something yet to discover. Arousal is a complex paradoxical cocktail: it requires some amount of adrenaline, some degree of excitement and danger, while also requiring just enough safety to open to the risk of the unknown, the new and they mysterious.
Therein lies the potential conundrum of sacred sex and partnership: meld, fuse and become one, yet remain separate, fresh and new to each other.
In embracing the conundrum, a closer look into the erotic is needed. Says Jack Morin, the author of The Erotic Mind, “Eroticism is the process through which sex becomes meaningful.” The erotic is “energized by the entire human drama, including the unruly impulses and painful lesson that no one – except those who retreat from life – can possibly avoid. No wonder the erotic mind conjures up images of debauchery as well as delight… eroticism is the interplay of sexual arousal with the challenges of living and loving.”
Erotic energy can be a life affirming and seamlessly integrated for some, but for many, it’s a source of pain, shame and guilt. For many, the erotic contains things we want but can’t admit we want; shadowy, dark, and confusing. For many, sexuality is connected to the overwhelming, the gruesome and the traumatic. We may desire things in our erotic lives we would never want in any other aspect of our lives – and this can be confronting to our identities. The erotic often intersects with our shadow selves.
Using the term as influential thinker and founder of Analytical psychology, Carl Jung, intended, shadow is the personal trash heap onto which we throw forbidden aspects of ourselves we deem unfit for respectable, everyday life. Anything we say is not OK, that we judge yet often desire, gets tossed in to the realm of shadow, usually latched tight.
And yet another conundrum: shadow aspects can be hot, exciting, intriguing. The taboo has simultaneous repulsion and appeal. Can our shadow – the very things we’ve decided have nothing to do with our best, most sacred selves have a place in our sacred sex and turned-on relationship lives?
Says sex advocate, educator, author and RN Nina Hartley: “Humans contain both light and shadow. Some people have a little shadow, some a lot. By not accepting our shadow we guarantee that we will explode. So much energy becomes available to us when we are not spending energy to hide or lie, when the shadow is included.”
When we can unlock formerly locked doors and embrace what was previously rejected, the result is often more wholeness and a divine homecoming. As Dossie Easton, marriage and family therapist and co-author of The Ethical Slut puts it, “… the shadow, our personal garbage pit, becomes the gateway through which we pass to travel in realms beyond ordinary consciousnesses.”
When we can get our attention off hiding and excluding aspects of ourselves – whether it is issues of body image, taboo, fantasies or past traumas – and simply see them in the light of day, we can not only discover new parts of ourselves but can also see and experience ourselves and partners anew. The fierce intelligence of the erotic and the power of the shadow can teach us about union with ourselves, union with another, and union with the divine.
Esther Perel adds, “The ability to challenge one’s own erotic blocks is vital. Does lust has a place in a home? Is marital sex only for procreation? Shame, guilt about fantasies, the desire for others besides our partners, our lack of self-acceptance … these all impede the sexual connection with our partners and ourselves. When we can bring it back into our partnerships, it can be very exciting.”
Reverend Goddess Charmaine is one such resource for both self and spiritual empowerment as well as erotic enlightenment. She includes the power of story and ritual as powerful means to bring shadow, sexuality and divinity into one. Author of The Sensuous Mystic, she offers gatherings, workshops and one-on-one work. “In funerals, marriages, high mass and Tantric rituals alike,” she says, “you purposely bring yourself into the embrace of others, and of the divine. Ritual delineates from the everyday, it becomes separate and special.” She goes on to quote Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I among them.”
Another gem comes in the role of our gray matter. In our midbrain (often called the limbic brain) reside our feelings, emotions and sensations. Our forebrain (rational brain) houses assessment, logic and reasoning. Our hindbrain (our “critter”) is our animal instinct, responsible for keeping us alive, safe and procreating. The erotic and shadow live in the mid and hindbrains. Our forebrains tell us how to interpret our erotic and shadowy natures – and that interpretation can range wildly from person to person, culture to culture.
For some, stepping into shadow is to explore the concept of receiving or to revisit negative body image, and for others it is far along the spectrum of re-enacting previous trauma. One person’s shadow is another’s sunshine-filled daisy field. In a family of thieves, the child who refuses to steal feels the guiltiest.
The rabbit hole of shadowy exploration can be long and dark indeed, and can lead to some pretty intense places. Not usually considered to be in the realm of sacred sex, sado-masochistic exploration is one area that deals directly and explicitly with shadow. However, the several experts I interviewed whose work includes it, are quite clear their work with it is sacred. Whatever exploration to which we assign value, to which we add intention, choice, presence and purpose, that exploration becomes elevated, meaningful, beautiful – and sacred.
Says Cléo Dubois, guide/initiator, ritualist, Kali priest and student in the realm of psycho erotic energy exchanges, of the shadow: “I want to explore it, on my terms. Be responsible for it. Reclaim it by going into the wounded places and putting light on them.”
For many this means a re-visiting of past distress and anguish, an exploration of personal and cultural archetypes, boundaries, limits and thresholds of sensation – including both pleasure and pain. But what distinguishes this ritualized exploration of the shadow as healthy and sacred from simply re-opening the wounds of former trauma, making it potentially doubly traumatizing?
Dossie Easton explains when we dive into our past with consciousness, we get to rewrite the ending ourselves; we travel a familiar path, but come out as victors, rather than victims. And when it is injected with eros, with the very life force that sexual energy is, it is powerfully affirming – and we have created a new memory, now accessible in our consciousness. We turn our personal tragedies into triumphs. She offers, “Lucifer actually means “light bearer”… the fallen angel who goes into unfathomable darkness with an unquenchable light inside him, and who carries the power of the villain and of the emancipator.”
But is going deeper into pain always necessary for its transformation? “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. But to penetrate the darkness we must summon all the powers of enlightenment that consciousness can offer,” says Carl Jung. For some the healing process cannot bypass pain, and the “powers of enlightenment” have to bore directly through the dense center of suffering. Often, going through pain becomes the access to pleasure; it becomes a question of degree and the intention behind the exploration.
I admit to being rather skeptical, until I ran across an abcNews video story on orgasmic birth. Birth is considered to be one of the most painful experiences a body can endure, yet this showed many women having the same blissful, expansive sensations in birthing their babies as in sexual orgasm. One woman explained her process as re-interpreting the intense sensations of contractions and labor from painful to pleasureful. In fact, many of the same physiological actions occur in labor and birth as in sexual intercourse and orgasm. It is our infamous forebrain that instructs us on whether to assign the label of “pleasure” or “pain” to our physiological sensations.
For those exploring pain as a gateway to sexual wholeness, a stubbed toe is still painful.
However, purposeful, prolonged, strong sensation can bring increased endorphins and opiates – and increased excitement and exhilaration – moving us from our analytical forebrains into our sensate and instinctive mid and hindbrains.
Again I have to wonder, though, what separates all this from the sexual equivalent of sniffing glue?
We are all influenced, to one degree or another by spiritual lineages that have included shadow and pain in the quest for enlightened union: fasting, sleep deprivation, whirling dervishes, self-flagellation, walking uphill on the knees, etc. While many of these sought to punish and deny the body in order to get to spirit, others used pain as a transformative tool to lovingly unite the body with the divine. Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron reminds, “Staying with pain without loving-kindness is just warfare.”
The word “surrender,” native French speaker Cléo Dubois reminds me, means, “let the weapons, guards and walls all fall.” Can we surrender to embracing the parts of ourselves we have previously been at war with? Like a kosmic koan, there is something divinely comedic about the oxymoronic task of embracing our erotic shadow in order to become whole and sacred. Yet in doing so we simultaneously embark upon an ever-unfolding discovery, which may just be the very thing to breathe lasting life into the sexual spark in our relationship lives.
What else can we do, in the practical day-to-day of our relationship lives? Dossie Easton advocates processing-free dates. Nina Hartley recommends for some to consider non-monogamy as a choice alternative to lying, hiding and cheating. Esther Perel and Reverend Goddess Charmaine encourage ever more awareness of what turns you on and off, making real time for sex and erotic exploration. Cléo Dubois urges us to explore our hind and midbrain’s instincts and feelings in consensual, intentional ways. Each encourages us to reveal to each other and ourselves the seemingly un-revealable.
When there is always more to know and uncover about yourself and your partner, the current of the erotic can stay cracklingly strong. When we can look at all of ourselves, shadow especially, as a form of worship, then we can come home. No ritual or exploration itself is sacred unto itself; it’s what we add that allows the divine to emerge.
Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver reminds, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
13th Century Persian mystic poet Rumi adds, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
… please let what you read rest in your body for a moment, and then let me know what gems come to light. Claim your seat as thought-leader, wisdom-digester, and healing-balm disseminator by leaving your comment and leaving your mark.
I look forward to the verse you contribute,