Discover the sacred unity of body and soul when it comes to sex.
It disturbs me to meet so many people for whom sex and spirituality are completely unrelated — or exist as opposites. For those who were brought up in a world where religious influence was nonexistent or plain ineffective, it may be a novel idea to consider that sex can be spiritual. Others, like me, grew up in a war between spirituality and sensuality. In my loving Catholic family, the word "sex" could stop conversations and make everyone freeze in embarrassment. I spent my teen years as a monk and seminarian. I didn't have sex until I was in my late twenties. Yet, despite all of this neurotic baggage, I came to enjoy sex as much as I am captivated by spirituality.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- For sex to be deeply exciting and engaging, somehow you have to evoke this goddess, the spirit of sex, who makes things happen. 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. 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.
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