Up From Dreaming.
It hit me as I was waking up this morning:
Sex, Emotions, Self and Reality
…these are the big four, and how we think about each of them adds up to which of two very distinct spiritual orientations we inhabit.
I know, I know, there are two kinds of people; those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t. Well, color me two-tone, like a yin-yang symbol or Joe Jackson’s dancing shoes. I know too that it is practically an article of faith that making distinctions feels too much like the verboten activity of “judgment,” but bear with me—I think you might find this illuminating.
Illuminating? Gosh, I know that sounds a little grandiose—but I am trying to get down to brass tacks, to the nuts and bolts, the nitty-gritty, the roots of my intuitions about why I am in this for the long haul, for the revolution y’all…
I want to birth a new perspective—and yeah, I have heard this is not possible without passion, aches and pains, brutal labor, ripping of old structures and more than a little blood and shit.
Oops! Did I Just say shit?
Listen, I can’t lie. I am uncomfortable with so much of what passes for spirituality. I was never religious—in fact, I think religion is a fake story made up by real people, a lie in the dark, a misunderstood concretizing of mythopoetic fairy tales—which, hey, is beautiful in and of itself and carries much metaphorical mojo—but, come on—who believes that stuff, like for real?
The litany of the literal is over, we have come too far and learned too much and raised the bar too high on what counts as knowledge, as truth. The romance for the past, for some non-existent utopian notion of communal splendor, splendid innocence, and innocent communion with a natural world inhabited by supernatural forces evaporates like a privileged gringo’s burrito-inspired gas on an all night bus to Machu Picchu.
And yeah, I bet those aaaaaancient ruins are beautiful, impressive, exotic—they probably even put your brain in a hella altered state for a couple of hours. Cool.
HUMANISTS or DUALISTS/ECSTATICS or ASCETICS
So here’s the thing: we can be Humanists or Dualists. Either the sacred is an already inherent part of being human OR the sacred is something or somewhere other than our humanity—whether an immortal disembodied soul, or located in an otherworldly place, or the domain of supernatural beings etc. And yeah, I know you probably want to be both—but this Ginsu just doesn’t slice that way.
Why does this matter? Well, it’s all about those brass tacks again, you see: either you think spirituality is a way to embrace life more fully—or you think it is a way of overcoming your humanity to attain something, somewhere else. In the latter case, as we have seen in all religious traditions, a struggle ensues that ironically (or perhaps obviously) results in such unnatural expressions as pedophile priests and holy war jihadists.
Sometimes I talk about this in terms of The Ecstatics vs. The Ascetics. You know—the ascetics of all traditions variously sleeping on beds of nails, tying their dicks in a knot or even self-castrating, covering their bodies in ashes from the funeral pyre, rejecting worldly ambitions, marriage, kids, whipping themselves till they bleed and cry out in rewired S&M rapture: Oh, God who exists beyond the world, I demonstrate to you my lack of regard for the body, for sex, for worldly concerns—show me your face and take me to your otherworldly place of divine perfection!
Sound extreme? Well it is, and it is the ideal of the ascetic path. Become a nun, a priest, a saddhu, a sanyassin and while you may not be engaging in some of the more arcane overt self- brutality of days gone by, there is still an underlying belief structure that locates spiritual life outside of our humanity.
It’s no wonder that after six years as an ascetic monk starving himself into a bag of bones that would make even a Beverly Hills anorexic grimace, that the Buddha sought to find a “Middle Way.”
As an aside—it turns out all that vision-chasing, voice-hearing, life-denying activity may have more to do with conditions like Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar Mania and some combination of OCD and Schizotypal Disorder. Ironically it turns out that no matter how much people with healthy brains chase those rare direct moments of supernatural encounter, it is only those pre-wired to hallucinate in their paranoid preoccupations with numbers and rituals and austere seclusion from the hoi polloi who hear the voice of god—and it usually says: I want you to write down these rules about sex and food and cleanliness, you dirty, dirty little monkey.
Oh, there’s another group who hear and/or see gods—those who’ve either accidentally or intentionally eaten powerful mind-bending fungi, mold or pharmaceuticals. Funny, that. Could be there’s a whole legacy of religious belief based in psychoactive sacramental plants and mental illness—neither of which we would have understood as such until fairly recently. No wonder it is always a tiny select few who are called prophets and saints, while everyone else just has to have “faith” without direct experience!
The Buddha was an ascetic yogi. He was in search of the Atman, engaging in practices of self-denial and mortification of the flesh so as to attain to the awareness of his true identity as a liberated immortal soul that was in the world but not of it, so as to extinguish the identity of the ego, the craving for sensory pleasures, the being caught up in the world of appearances, in Nature itself that is understood as being fundamentally other than the pure consciousness, which ultimately is God.
Eventually, he let this go and came to a whole other perspective. No soul (anatma), no God per se, just the radical practice of observing one’s own psychology, so as to be more free. The Buddha wanted to set people free from superstition, petitionary prayer, ritual offerings—he was all: WAKE UP!
We still haven’t heard this message, and bathe instead in the vague multicultural soup of religious, magical and otherworldly beliefs—calling this spirituality, and differentiating it from religion only in as much as we maintain a pious relativism that refuses to judge any path, belief or idea as being more or less true or worthy than any other….
This is nice! Seriously, it’s an improvement on fundamentalism, for real.
But it ends up also being a kind of intellectual Harakiri. A sword in the guts of substance, a gun to the head of philosophical inquiry, a garden hose fit snug on the exhaust pipe and draped delicately into the driver-side window of the car of real self-awareness, a pre-shrunk one-size-fits-all straitjacket metaphysics of anything goes—and so nothing goes (anywhere) really…
Rumi was an ecstatic. He was persecuted by the dominant religious regime—as they all are. He wrote about love and dancing and wine and his beloved teacher (and most likely gay lover) was killed for his subversive influence. Kabir is in there too—fiercely critical of religious dualism, and check out Lorin Roche’s translation of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra called The Radiance Sutras—sublime embrace of the sacred in surrender to everyday aliveness, feeling and pleasure. Mirabai—look her up too. She felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders underneath her and said: “Now you want me to climb up on a jackass? Please, try to be serious!”
There is something important here too about the oppression of women because of the male religious suspicion of sex and emotions – the dualistic position has almost always identified the feminine as separate from spirituality. Ever wonder where the mother, daughter or wife are in the (ironically) homoerotic holy trinity? Father, Son, Holy Ghost…
But hey, let’s get to the subject at hand:
SEX (it’s why you clicked though in the first place, right?!)
I like sex. You do too. It’s an essential element of what we are, and we can either buy into the idea that sex is an animalistic, dirty, fleshy, material activity that is the antithesis of spirituality, or that sex in all of its instinctive, pleasurable, hot, sweaty, messy, aggressive, primal splendor is inherently sacred as it is. I mean, sure we can be imbalanced in our relationship to sex, and sure there are beautiful practices that can make our experience of sex more nuanced, ecstatic, even more of an emotionally resonant, spiritually connected path of shared personal growth—but my point here is that without adding anything to it, sex is already sacred.
You don’t have to do it under a tapestry of a Hindu deity and call it tantra to somehow chase away our animal nature and sacralize it. Though I am not knocking the finer arts of sexual engagement, it’s already sacred because we are already sacred—because the concept, the feeling, the valuing of sacredness is a human quality.
Now, I know most spiritual-but-not-religious folks already share at least most of this attitude, but here’s where it gets complicated: the old world religious angst about sexuality is part of an overall problem it has with our animal nature, with our bodies, with the looming fact of our death. You can’t dig around the roots of religious ideology in the soil of one obsession—to find a way to not have to die, and in finding a way not to die we identify something in us that is not of the body, that is not mortal, that can please an otherworldly god who wants us to be pure.
This is the dualism: God and The World are two different things.
Body and Soul are two different things.
Our Animal and Spiritual Nature are two different things.
There is a spirit world that we go to when we die.
There is an all-knowing disembodied god who wants us to live in certain ways that often have to do with very specific instructions on how and who to fuck or not fuck—and if you decide you want to live the most deeply spiritual life possible, no fucking at all please, right?
Oops! Did I say fuck?!
The thing is, this attitude about sexuality, about the body, about our mortal animal nature, about Nature itself is inherent to a common underlying set of beliefs that even those of us who have exonerated sex from the religious chastity belt, and may even have made sex a part of our definition of spirituality, still usually pay lip-service to as being true.
The invitation: Jump into the boat of liberated spiritual humanism with both feet, it is literally ripping you apart at the crotch to have one foot in disembodied immortal spiritual purity and the other in the vibrant life of the body!
Walt Whitman got it—he sang the body electric, he worshiped the spread of his own body, he proclaimed the scent of his armpits finer than prayer and his brain more than churches or bibles or creeds.
Holy hormones, ecstatic endorphins, mighty neurotransmitters! All hail the sacred biochemistry, the neurochemical alchemy! Viva la difference and embrace yourself and your loved ones, because we don’t live forever and love is precious precisely because it is not guaranteed…
If I had a penny for every spiritual seeker I’ve met who is trying get away from their emotions, I could build a bronze fortress to keep the pain at bay. OK maybe they’d each have to give me two or three pennies, but I am sure you get the idea.
Shit, I have probably donated a hundred pennies to that cause myself!
Here’s the thing, we are not taught how to deal with the fact that we feel, that we feel so much about our lives, that we desire, and we love, and we get hurt, and we fear—boy do we fear, and at the bottom of all that fear—DEATH.
Death wearing the mask of the unknowable.
Death inspiring us to make up stories that scare the hell out of little children with threats of hellfire. Death draped in promises of pearly gates and harps or willing virgin angels, depending on which of the Abrahamic traditions the roll of dice found you coming up under.
We are afraid. We can imagine the future and compare it to the past more powerfully than any other creature—the evolving brain that enables this, allows us to imagine our own death. We treat emotions like they might kill us, might last forever like our imaginings of eternity beyond the body.
We want to control these terrifying feelings. Grief, rage, fear, shame. Forgetting that feelings are to be felt, that emotions have meaning, that this is how we process our life inside, we call certain feelings spiritual and damn others to the dark and cobwebbed basement of the mind.
The Humanist response—spirituality can be an unconditional embrace of all of who you are. Give compassionate and contemplative attention to your emotional life, it is the key to your own healing, awakening and integration. Sure emotions are sometimes blown out of proportion or distorted—but if you stay with them, they will reveal their deeper layers, the jewels will come up to the surface—the reason for the intensity will emerge if you respect it. The best-kept secret: emotions actually are rational, you just have to stay with them long enough to understand what they mean.
And when you’re done, when the rain has washed your eyes clean, when the fire has burned the shame and fear out of your core, there is more space for love and joy and play—and better still, it’s not that fake pasted-on smiley-face bullshit that comes from denying the depths and disowning the shadows.
This one is key: dualism tells us there is a true self that is not of this world, that is immortal, that is beyond egoistic concerns and attachments and is in fact one with the transcendent otherworldly god.
Sounds good, huh? Well, I am sure we all agree that there is great benefit from cultivating an awareness that can exercise healthy restraint, self-reflection and curiosity about what the meaning is of our habitual attachments and reactions—but does this therefore mean there is some self inside that is not really us, not really of the world, that exists somehow in ghostly purity, untouched by life’s slings and arrows, all knowing, all wise and somehow above it all?
What if your true self is absolutely embodied, full-hearted, deeply engaged with life, in love with the process of creation and discovery, fully present whether weeping or meditating (and weeping while meditating), dancing or in yoga poses, participating in the world of commerce, walking in solitude by the ocean, or locked in the carnal embrace of primal pleasure?
What if spiritual practices were actually about integrating heightened awareness, wisdom and compassion into all of our lives instead of setting aside some special goal of being unmoved by life’s beauty and struggle?
All of it! Shouts the humanist—I’ll take it all!
Neuroscience demonstrates that (as the Buddha intuited) the self is something of an illusion; a continuously constructed, de-constructed and re-constructed fig(on the)ment-al tree. Brimming with the fleshy juices of memory, perception and exquisitely refined brain and endocrine activity, the fruit of interior experience is as unique to consciousness as it is rooted in biology. Nothing more, nothing less—two in one, no ghost in the machine.
By now you may be singing along with the chorus. One world, one life, one tribe, right? I know most of us feel this way already.
Consider this: there are many versions of the spiritual idea that the reality we live in is an illusion, a dress rehearsal after which we shed our earth-suits and move on to the main event. That there is a higher reality or a hidden reality or a place we can get to where we see that everything is perfect. That the little girl being raped is actually getting what she needs, the little boy with leukemia is going to a better place and the family killed in the tsunami must have had some outrageous karma from a past life…
But what if this is just make-believe and we live with what we actually have—what kind of work would be necessary to tolerate all the things about reality we would rather deny? Sounds like grounded spiritual practice to me.
Here’s the dreaded distinction: either your spiritual worldview distorts reality or it helps you to see it more clearly. Period.
Now I can already hear you postmodern hepcats start up the hurdy-gurdy midi-driven saxophone of untethered bebop; relativist key changes, refusal to resolve to any kind of cadence. No major or minor keys please, you wisely intone—it’s all one chromatic kaleidoscope! But hey, before I lose the non-musicians, I’ll tell you what I mean:
We live in a world that includes injustice, randomness, suffering and death alongside beauty, wonder, compassion, birth, meaning, love and creativity. (There’s that gosh-darn yin-yang symbol again.)
This is reality—and we keep learning more about it: The 13.7 billion year old expanding universe, gravity curving space time, electrons doing their little perplexing magic show, the human brain evolving up out of exponential consecutive leaps from the simplest of unicellular creatures to worms with heads, to swivel eyed reptiles, to warm and fuzzy mammals, to our closest hairy relatives in the trees, to Neanderthals enacting the first rituals with bear skulls and thigh bones and creating the first myths about the Great Bear Spirit who sent his children to us for food and clothing.
This is reality: a planet with finite resources in a solar system that will one day be destroyed, no sign of life elsewhere, but we keep looking! This is reality: we are imperfect creatures who live and love and eat and shit and fuck and make mistakes and try to learn and have immense capacity for healing and insight, compassion and wisdom if we are willing to do the work.
THE WORK: Keep letting go of the actual distortions and choosing reality—it really is the only game in town. Keep choosing life while you still can. Keep feeling deeply and living fully and loving with all your heart and inquiring with great curiosity. If there is a real spiritual life it is found here in what we already are and what we can become within the limits of reality.
If there are great and meaningful spiritual metaphors, they have their reference points right here in this messy, beautiful human existence.