Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Rethinking Sexual Mysticism ...

The association of a claimed spiritual impulse with sexuality is a mystery in two senses - it is a mystery in the religious sense that it is present but inexplicable and it is a mystery in a second sense that most people just do not get that it is possible.

This is not just because most people in the West have grown up within a cultural tradition that firmly separates spirit (or mind at its most transcendent) from matter (or body at its most functional).

Many Westerners understand body as brute and often inconvenient matter but they are now unsure whether spirit exists except as illusion, a derangement of the neurons.

To cope with the very concept of sexual mysticism or of a sexual spirituality requires that we struggle with two very different ways of seeing.

There is the personal privileging of sexuality as a means of expression and that process by which 'transcendence', the experience of existing beyond the immediate self, has meaning in and of itself. Not everyone gets either of these concepts, let alone their integration.

The privileging of sexuality is deeply counter-cultural because that privileging is wholly associated with simple gratification of desire, with the sin of lust. A 'swinger' is more comprehensible to most people than a sexual mystic because the former are simply acting out a common desire without restraint.

Most people sit on a continuum between a-sexuality and radical desire that has little room for the numinous.

On the other hand, transcendence is also problematic because it is associated with external forces, mostly God but often today with a more vague sense of the divine or perhaps of some essential reality beyond reality.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I position transcendence as a materially-based experience that is valid in itself (as experience) but not validly described outside the experience except in materialist terms. This does not make the experience invalid, merely additional explanations invalid.

Whatever God, the divine or reality beyond reality are to individuals, they are set apart from matter for most people and so, sex being associated with desire that is seen as 'material', they are not seen as sexual. Indeed, the sexual may be so associated with matter that it becomes associated with 'dirt'.

The sexual mystic is a liminal figure, an absurd figure in many people's eyes, even more so than the 'mulatto', the bisexual and the transgender have been in the past - and all those other figures in society who partake of both or neither of the binary components of our conventional thought.

Black/white, light/dark. good/bad. But these figures between the boundaries are not liminal at all, They are at the point of convergence of binaries. They represent ambiguity. Either/or. Neither/nor. Most people are uncomfortable with ambiguity. Yet dealing with ambiguity is central to individuation.

Why the discomfort? Because ambiguity is often the first step to anxiety and anxiety is the first step to coming-to-terms with the actually existing human condition. For some of the highly sexualised, the introduction of the numinous confuses things - why add obfuscation to a 'natural' act?

There is no reason why the swinger is necessarily a psychopath in this. Their unspiritual sexuality is consensual and many swingers will have strongly monogamous relationships when it comes to affection and property. There is no intrinsic superiority in the numinous.

For the highly spiritualised on the other hand, the sexual is just so, well, 'dirty' - literally, in the exchange of body fluids and the mess - and deriving from the lack of loss of self in the god-head or in the eternal because of the association of the act with the body and the material .

Even where texts have not demanded that a person treat sexuality as a highly regulated and non-spontaneous activity, the psychology of formal religion appears to demand that sex be avoided as sin or distraction.

Yet, for a small minority, the linkage between the sexual and the mystical is logical and healthy. In some personalities, the experience of orgasm excites mental visions of the eternal, the infinite and the numinous.

The entire experience of sex is, to such persons, deeply magical or spiritual (the terms are not quite interchangeable).

The real puzzlement to these people is why an innocent, private, consensual and deeply personal association of the link between sex and the divine is the cause of so much fear, anxiety, horror and oppression in the majority.

But I must go back to being honest here. I accept the experience of the transcendent but I do not accept the experience of the divine as something taking place beyond the mind of the subject.

Those who have experienced intense transcendence through religious experience, drugs or sex - or even contemplation of art or nature - can find the experience so overwhelming that all reason flees. The experience is embraced as true-in-itself, as an absolute.

There is no arguing with such persons - nor are they wrong in their noble illusions. The experience is true because it 'is'. Sex, like drugs, is highly specific, though, in giving us a path way from experience to this felt illusory (objectively) but real (subjectively) transcendence.

Both involve chemical transformations within the body, whether instigated by the introduction of chemicals or through forcing chemical change within the body through (say) touch ... but the essence of the matter is the same, the triggering of transcendence through radical chemical and neuron adaptation.

The objection of the religious and post-religious secular community to sex and drugs is 'moral' on the spurious basis that no external force other than, successively, God's grace or pure reason should intervene between man and the transcendent.

This is the gap, however, into which priests and intellectuals have insinuated themselves. But God is now either dead or very personal indeed to post-modern man. Reason is on its last legs as adequate explanation for our conditions of existence.

This is not to say that sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll should be put in their place (far from it - these are often evasions) but only that there is a hole which people are having to fill without paternal or maternal guidance and each person will have their own right way of filling it.

This raises many issues of 'value' that can be boiled down to the simple unconscious acceptance of a person as either an existential being (experiencing things as a material being in relation to the world) or essential (attaining knowledge of hidden things in the world that actually exist 'out there').

This is the occult of the inner soul in conceptual competition with the occult of the universe.

Hitherto all discussion of sexuality in a spiritual context has centred either on the impossibility of sexuality or narcotics (as opposed to reason or ascetic discipline) permitting access to the divine or, alternatively, of sexuality and narcotics being the most natural pathway to a divinity that exists above and beyond humanity.

In other words, both the majority of believers who deny a link between sex and spirit and those few who assert a direct link between the two share an assumption that there is 'something out there' which rejects or accepts the gift of sex.

But once the divine is lost conceptually in a secular society (as it has largely been in ours), the only sex that is left is the sex that is no longer denied (as it is by the deniers of the link) but which also has no transcendent quality.

From this point on, it is just, more or less, pleasure - unpleasant, erotic, brute, playful or whatever - but just pleasure without meaning except, at best, as personal bonding.

This last statement might shock but most people in the modern world can now only see sex as a matter of brute pleasure or personal bonding. This leads us to the dichotomous cultural relationship between sex as commodity and sex as personal development and as a relationship tool.

This clearly creates its own binary structure of dark and light, good and evil, with advocates on both sides.

Perhaps we might now re-think this in the light of science and of the fact of sexual mysticism in the past (such as that of the Greek mystery tradition and Gnosticism) by suggesting that, while the sex of pleasure and of commodification and the sex of bonding are real phenomena, there may be a third phenomenon of sexuality as felt transcendence that requires no God or divinity at all.

Such an existentialist sexuality is liminal and so disturbing by its nature. It exists not just to release tension or excite (as in the pleasure model) nor is it designed to be 'social', to build bonds.

It might just as well exist as an individual act of transcendence with participants who share the same ends and who replace the divine as external with the divine as internal, as an inner transformative power.

This, of course, relates to spiritual alchemy. We might argue that the alchemical, a chemical process within the body, was falsely related to the external and to a ladder of perfection.

An existential sexual mysticism might be interested not in 'rising' towards divinity but in finding moments of Dionysiac purity which are internally transformative within existing reality.

Instead of union with God or the external divine, the sexual process would now be directed at individuation, a more Jungian concept, but one which is not merely imagined but is actuated.

And not only through sexuality - we have mentioned sex and drugs but these are of no greater consequence than art, higher mathematics, ritual and performance, asceticism, deep meditation or long walks!

There is no intent here to throw the baby of technique out with the bathwater of essentialism - for, if we think long and hard about it, it becomes clear that, though the sexual mystics of the past were unable to separate the experience from the theory, their methods were often finely tuned towards achieving the actuality of a felt transcendence.

We can envisage a Western sexual mysticism closer to the mentality of the Taoists or the more radical Tantrics, by which transcendence in order to effect transformation and individuation becomes a form of science in its own right.

Even symbolic notions such as the alchemical idea of 'as above so below' or that of archetypes, as developed by Jung, can be used in a scientific way, much like higher mathematics, to transmute the leaden life of conformity and easy acceptance of a constructed social reality into a dynamic and revolutionary critique of the 'given', far more focused than the cynicism of the Chaos Magicians.

Needless to say, such thoughts will disturb those who really do believe that there is a divine 'out there' instead of inside ourselves. It will also unnerve those who cannot think in these terms at all but only in terms of the laws of physics.

Those who are interested in neither God nor science but only in pleasure will be equally puzzled at why anyone should be mad enough (in their eyes) to add bells and whistles. But these 'platonists', positivists and hedonists are not being asked to become like the new alchemists.

They are merely being asked to be more tolerant of a different way of seeing than their ancestors have been.

In the past,control, repression, contempt or ridicule have been the natural modes of society towards all three styles of approaching sexuality, all tending to indicate fear and anxiety rather than understanding.

To conclude, it is likely that the 'sexual mystic impulse', a component of what might be the 'new alchemy', is always going to be for the few - but not because the few want to keep it to themselves but because the many simply cannot get sexuality as anything more than pleasure and power.

There is nothing elitist about this new alchemy. On the contrary, it is for anyone who wants it. To remove the pleasure and the power of sexuality from the social, from constructed social reality, and return it to individuals as individuals in direct communion with each other, may be the most profoundly revolutionary act of our time.