In the monastery, I was taught to see spirituality as part of religion. But my later studies opened up a much larger notion.
I discovered from Renaissance authors that any attempt to transcend yourself can be spiritual. You might learn, think, write, converse— all representing the intellectual side of the spiritual. You might play sports and try hard to reach impossible goals. In a stadium full of adoring, out-of-their-skins spectators, you might make a "miracle" play. Sports can be highly spiritual, to the point where athletes sometimes behave like monks, with their austere lives and diets and schedules. Travel, too, can be a form of spirituality, a way of expanding your world. The most ordinary journey, even just to the other side of town, can be a pilgrimage.
Researching Greek polytheistic religion also had a strong impact on my views on sex. I discovered that people could imagine their god as being extremely erotic, sensual, and even sexy. Aphrodite was a real deity—worshiped, prayed to, revered. In graduate school I studied this goddess closely, noting the way she was presented in sacred art: taking a bath, slowly disrobing, wearing jewelry, holding a mirror to her face.
I also examined images of the gods erect and full of desire. I read that the greatest of all, Zeus, had a 300-year honeymoon with his wife, Hera, and that his orgasm created the many wondrous things of the world—a striking image of the creative power of sex. India has similar images of divine creative eros. Finally, I read the famous Kama Sutra and was surprised to find that it is not all about sexual positions and preparations. It begins by instructing the reader to get two major aspects of life in order: First, find meaning in your existence.What are your personal laws and needs? What are you called to do? What is your dharma? Second, get your home and career on track. Give your life form. Have a philosophy that can guide you, and apply it to your everyday concerns. Only then will you be ready to learn how to make love. Career And Family: Can We Really Have Both?
I came away from my studies in religion with the knowledge that it is possible to be intensely spiritual and intensely sexual at the same time. There is no contradiction. More than that, I came to believe that if a person's sexuality is not fully accepted, his spirituality will suffer. And vice versa: If his spirituality is not strong, his sexuality will be weak.
From all these sources I developed what I will call the ten erotic commandments. Notice that they are not about physical love as an isolated phenomenon. I think of a human being as always, in every instance, made up of body, soul, and spirit. There is no such thing as purely physical love, because we are more than physical. So, be prepared for a broader notion of what sex is all about.
There are practical steps to go with these "commandments." Realize the importance, men and women, of taking care of your bodies: being clean, smelling nice, dressing well. Pay attention, as well, to what you say, talking with some intelligence and thoughtfulness. Choose the setting and props carefully: good oils, fragrances, linens. Spiritual rituals are always carried out with attention to detail and with beauty. Have an image nearby that captures the union of sex and spirit: a photograph of one of the couples on the Indian temples of Khajuraho or Konorak, for instance, or a picture of blue Krishna with his gopis and his girlfriend Radha.
I have a special love of early Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation, the moment when an angel appears to tell Mary that she is with child by the Holy Spirit. There are hundreds of these paintings, and I always look to see how they depict the spiritual semen, often as a gold stream shooting down from a bird to the uterus of the Virgin. In sex, we make contact with the divine through our partner. The more vision and care that goes into our sexuality, the more it serves as a conduit to the spirit.
Sensuality and spirituality work hand in hand for the benefit of each. You can be so focused on the physical that you have no vision, no ideas, and no values. Everything becomes about the self. But if you have a spiritual life, you are on your way out of narcissism. Nothing is more harmful to good sex than narcissism, which is a neurotic worry about your own value. The only way to deal with narcissism is to love yourself in a calm, unexaggerated way. Spiritual reflection can bring you to that point, and, in fact, spiritual literature is full of advice on how to get the self or ego out of the way. The very attitude that brings you to the pinnacle of spirit is great for your sexuality.
The reverse is also true. If you are a highly sexual and sensual person, your spirituality will be grounded. The greatest danger in the spiritual life is to lose contact with reality. You begin to believe in the most far-fetched things. You think of yourself as better than anyone else, as possessing the one and only truth. Ultimately, you may become too hard on yourself in an effort to be as acceptable and as pure as possible. These are extremes that a good sensual life can tame. (Some people become so negative about the body that they fall victim to anorexia and bulimia, and fascinating studies have been made on the connection between spiritual fasting and eating disorders. I have worked in therapy with people like this and have noticed that their dreams are sometimes full of sensual orgies, telling them, I imagine, where they need to go.) Inner Beauty: What Men Don't Tell You
Spirituality without sensuality tends to be aggressive, even turning mean and punitive. I often contemplate the wonderful painting by Botticelli of Mars and Venus. Most commentators see it as the goddess of love taming the god of war. That painting contains a dynamic that plays out in the hearts and souls of us all. No doubt that there is a close connection between sexual repression and extreme aggression. But even in our more ordinary lives,we might be less depressed and mean-spirited if our spirituality were softened by comfortable and visionary sex.
The more sexual you become, engaging your entire being, the more your sexuality will be a route to the spirit. And when you pursue your spiritual goals in meditation, prayer, and ritual, you should eventually discover the body anew. You will find, as the Sufi teachers often say, that your ultimate lover is God. This is a great mystery, and I don’t mean to be at all disrespectful. But I do think that, in the end, spirituality allows all your experiences—and your entire world—to reveal the intimacy with which the divine presses itself upon you.
THE TEN EROTIC COMMANDMENTS
The first step in the spiritual life is to move beyond narcissism and self-absorption. This is not a glamorous suggestion, but it is essential: Treat your partner honestly, respectfully, and kindly. It's as simple as that. Spirituality begins in achieving a basic but difficult aspect of maturity—not being selfish. This doesn't mean that you don't take care of yourself and have full satisfaction in your sexual life, but, as the spiritual traditions consistently teach, you can't be happy if those around you are not happy.
Sex is a union of persons, not only bodies. You can prepare for sex by being an interesting person, bringing with you your intelligence, culture, ideas, values, and talents. It's one thing to make love with a pretty body and another to be intimate with a real person. You can take time to talk to your partner, maybe at dinner before lovemaking. Don't be afraid to talk about the things that matter. Letting a closely guarded thought emerge can lead to a physical sense of release. If you can’t do this with your dinner partner, then your sex may not be anything special. Which Love Language Do You Speak?
A spiritual person has a broad vision. He or she is interested in life, meaning, and the world. Vision is an aspect of transcendence and a reach beyond self. Sex usually begins and ends in conversation. Visionary talk, in contrast to mundane and self-centered chatter, can be vital and erotic.
Spirituality benefits from some kind of contemplation or meditation, a stepping outside the ordinary reality. Lovemaking can have a contemplative quality—taking time, allowing yourself to be dreamy, giving in not only to passion but also to the timeless atmosphere of sex. Ecstasy, a word often applied to sexual experience, means "to stand outside," and it doesn’t have to have the swoon factor that people sometimes associate with it. Ecstasy can be a steady, calm progress to a state that is tranquil and otherworldly.
Sex is as much a ritual as anything done in church or temple. A ritual is an action that speaks primarily to the heart and soul. It doesn't have much practical meaning. Some people like to justify sex by seeing it as a way to make babies or to express love. Obviously it can do these things, but it can also be a ritual that evokes the spirituality of the relationship, long or short, casual or serious. Therefore, the spiritual quality of sex may increase if you pay attention to its ritual aspect: timing, clothing, music, candles, setting, language.
Sex can be virtuous without being repressive or too clean. The great virtue in sex is generosity, the capacity to offer an abundance of feeling, intelligence, and equality to your partner. This doesn't mean surrendering completely or giving away too much, but rather a thoughtful and moderate offering of self. Again, this is a traditional spiritual virtue applied to the special realm of sex.
Sex has a lot to do with appreciating the beauty of the human body and the person. You don't have to be a stunner or even pretty or handsome. Fortunately, sexual passion allows us to see the beauty of the body in small elements and gestures. Loving the person also helps, because the beauty of the personality usually gets transferred to the body.
Prayer takes many forms. Even the monks have said that to work is to pray. You don't have to say formal prayers before sex, but you can bring to it such an appreciation for its power to express love and to make unions that it becomes a prayer.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had a keen awareness of the spirituality in sex, which they personified in the goddesses Aphrodite and Venus. An old story is told of pilgrims going by boat to an island where they could venerate a statue of the naked and seductive Aphrodite. For sex to be deeply exciting and engaging, somehow you have to evoke this goddess, the spirit of sex, who makes things happen. As a muse is to an artist— a real and important source of inspiration—so this spirit is to a couple making love.
Spirituality involves reaching beyond the self. Sex is quite private, but a good sex life can help make a good community. One of the results of good sex is joy, pure and simple, an antidote to the often depressive, cynical tone of modern life, with its tendency to dehumanize and make excessive demands. When people have a joyful, positive outlook, they are capable of community.
Thomas Moore is the author of Care of the Soul, Soulmates, and other bestselling books.