Sex, Spirituality and Ruth
By David M. Pittle, Ph.D., M.Div.
The subject of sex and spirituality was brought home to me not long ago. I was talking with a client we’ll call Ruth. She said, “When Graham and I make love, it is just so physically explosive. I have the best orgasms with him. We quit being separate people and I know what it means to be one. But when he just touches me during our love-making. . . When he goes out of his way to give me pleasure. . . Sometimes I feel something more . . . Well, I’m an agnostic and I don’t really believe in god. . . In fact I’m not even sure what the word means but sometimes I feel like I’m in touch with god—or at least something beyond me. I think it’s what you’ve been calling spiritual.”
She went on to say, “There are other times, like last Friday night. . . I was packing my bag for a weekend trip to LA for a work meeting. Graham came up behind me. He didn’t really do anything sexy. He just put his hands on my shoulders and pulled me back against him. He whispered, ‘I adore you, and I adore Elise (Our daughter).’ He just held me like that for a moment. It was not just a sense of being loved. It was a sense of being bonded and valued for my own sake. It was also sexual and spiritual.”
Notice the indicators of spirituality. Ruth was expressing a sense of reverence and awe for what was happening both in the sex and in the way it carried over to a gesture that we don’t often put in that same category. And we can sense in her words and tone her immense gratefulness.
Sex is fun. Before we get into all the metaphysics and head stuff, the first words have to be “Sex is fun”. Let me blatantly state, nothing is more spiritual than fun, pleasure, that binds people to each other.
Nothing does this more than sex and sexuality. The act of sex is the attestation of spirituality.
I am not equating spirituality with religion. With few exceptions, among the most repressive influences on sex and sexuality has been the influence of modern western religion. In fact, not only western religion, but most eastern religion has also been anti-sexual. Many Indian religious traditions are as anti-sex as the most conservative western religions and a large number of Buddhist sects also are sexually oppressive.
I know some people will point to the Kama Sutra, a Hindu work written in Sanskrit which teaches much about sexual activity. But the Kama Sutra is much more than a sex handbook, it is foremost a manual of instruction for a good and satisfying life. Only one of the seven chapters is directly about sexual activity, the others cover other subjects about how a man should go about pursuing the “good” life. Also, the Kama sutra is the exception. Many Hindu religions extol celibacy and restricted sexual activity.
Increasing numbers of people are leaving religion or only maintaining a peripheral relationship to their religious sect. The call themselves “spiritual but not religious” or, feeling abused by their religious upbringing, have turned to a belligerent atheism.
Bruce and Randy are a couple with whom I have counseled. They found each other while attending a local “non-denominational” church that caters to young people. One of the first things I learned is that when their relationship became public, they were asked to both renounce it and confess, or to leave the church. They did the latter and have now been together for over eight years. They call themselves, “Recovering Christians.”
Randy has recently experienced a decline in his ability to obtain an erection. According to his physician, there was no organic reason. During our work, I had them doing a week of sensate focus exercises. They were instructed that Randy was to lie on the bed and let Bruce pleasure him, but that he was not to get an erection. In fact, if he did get an erection, they were to use the squeeze method to stop it. They were not to have intercourse, or ejaculate in any case.
On the next night they were to reverse roles, but Randy was still not allowed to have an erection. Of course after a week of this Randy’s erection capability was back. We talked about how the word “obtain” was key because it meant they were pursuing the erection as a goal and not just letting it happen.
In the fourth session however, Bruce made a comment about how during sex, he saw their relationship as different from any he had ever had. It was an amazing link to all of “the life-source” and left him feeling thankful for all that he had received in Randy. At this, Randy responded, “Huh? That’s just the kind of thing I feel every time I am with you. We are such an improbable and wonderful couple.”
They were both expressing a level of spirituality that is available to everyone. They didn’t use the words, “awe”, “gratefulness” or reverence,” but that was evident in their expressions and demeanor.
Everyone is spiritual. Spirituality does not necessarily have anything to do with a super-natural being, a god–though for some people, it does. It is, rather, the way we each relate to our world and to each other.
When one enters Zion National Monument and stands in awe of the deep azure sky behind the upward sweeping, almost vertical rock faces and mesas; that is spiritual. It engenders feelings of awe, reverence and gratefulness. But the same feelings can arise from other stimuli: Viewing a quiet stream. A perfect rendition of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring or a Mozart Requiem. All of these tie the viewer, listener, experiencer into the great web of being. One or more of those three, awe, reverence and gratefulness, are the keys of spirituality.
Awe, reverence and gratefulness come in other ways as well. A particle physicist or mathematician creates a new mathematical equation and remarks on its “beauty and elegance” as she stands looking at it in awe. For most of us, who are not mathematicians, calling an equation beautiful is almost incomprehensible—but the mathematician sees the beauty and expresses a sense of gratefulness.
A pregnant woman gives birth to what is objectively a squalling, messy infant, yet somehow that new being is a beloved child and the mother and even the doctors who see this every day, are moved to reverence, awe and gratefulness; there is the flesh and blood witness to the fabric of being.
Sexuality is one experience we have of being a part of the mesh of reality. It reminds us constantly that we are intimately connected with all other beings in a mesh of Interbeing. (A word I borrow from the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.) All those feelings when we are with another person are what tie us together and create a bond among all beings.
That which engenders awe, reverence and gratefulness is spiritual. Does it have something to do with god? Only if you think it does. The word god can have many meanings and if by it you mean the mesh of all life, then you may like to use that word. But if you don’t use the word, it makes no difference. The web of life, Interbeing, that is the reality of the spirit.
Most of the time we have sexual feelings but we don’t pay much attention to their deeper meaning. Sexuality is not always about having sex. It may be, but it may also just result in closer feelings of friendship and caring. For those who are willing to dig deeper however, they may well discover the sexuality of bonding.
Not all spirituality is sex and sexuality. But some of it is. And not all sex is spiritual. Sometimes it is based on power or other unhealthy motives. But sex between two people who see each other, not as objects to be exploited for self-pleasure, but as individuals with whom to bond and with whom to give and receive pleasure; this is spiritual.
Christian churches make much of the difference between the Greek words for love used in the New Testament, agapé and eros. But they are really not polar opposites. When you understand eros and sex, at its best, to be spiritual, then agapé and eros are not opposed, but are interconnected in Interbeing—in God, if you prefer that word.