Saturday, 20 June 2015

Cultural Evasion - Sacralising Sexuality

I have suggested in previous postings that the attempt to take language and conceptualisation from a traditionalist culture (such as South Asian) into a modernised and modernising one was more likely to obfuscate than enlighten. On the other hand, I suggested that traditionalist cultures had a great deal of a practical nature to teach us about techniques for personal development. The problem here is that the West’s tendency is either to dismiss non-Western thinking entirely as non-scientific, or even dangerous if mishandled, or to turn it into a fetish by adopting the forms of a tradition but not investigate the deep meaning of the thinking involved with a philosophical eye.

The classic case study is Neo-Tantra where the use of sexual activity for personal transformation on an occasional and highly disciplined basis linked to a very traditionalist vision of society has been transformed into a sort of couple guidance therapy for confused liberal adults. These ‘followers’ persist in using Sanskrit names, about which most must have limited understanding, to act as cover and excuse for something for which there should be no cover or excuse at all – good sex between willing adults.

The sacralisation of sexuality is getting out of hand. One of the reasons for this is that sexually healthy Westerners, especially women, constantly have to make excuses in our prevailing culture for having a perfectly healthy or business-like attitude to what is often a risky (though less so today than at any time in history) but otherwise highly pleasurable, amusing and very creative activity. Having to engage in personal relations with a ‘blessed be’ or a ‘namaste’ in tow is a back-handed compliment to the dominant repressive culture. It takes open attitudes to the body and sexuality (and to transgression that harms no one) and puts them into a box that contains the libido as far away from the ‘normal’ world as is possible in a free society.

This containment process uses ritual and strange language forms in order to make a high price of entry to anyone who wants to express themselves openly but without the ritual baggage. It is self censorship with sacral sub-cultures doing the system's work for it. ‘Conventional’ culture, outside these ‘sacred’ models to which we might add Thelema and many others, then throws healthy sexuality into two challenging pots – the ‘normal’ which avoids the subject altogether and ‘swinger’ or ‘fetish’ sub-cultures where identity is sexual and little more. True sexual normality is avoided in every way possible – conventional, sacral or sub-cultural.

Those who lose themselves in ritualised separation are not to be condemned or blamed for this at all. As we have seen from the sheer effort required to expose something that was an ‘absolute wrong’ yet protected by conventional attitudes to the inconvenient truth (priestly child abuse), those with a radical or free sexuality, having seen previous waves of liberation crushed by material reality and cultural conformity, have every reason to create closed self-protective societies. In this, they are like early Reformation reformers faced with the sheer weight of Catholic cultural power. The excessive sacralisation of sexuality in mock-traditional clothing liberates in one direction only to create psychological bondage in another.

The Early Reformation analogy is a good one. The Reformers rebelled against the Church but only within some of the same assumptions about the existence of God on peculiarly Christian magical lines and men were killed over transubstantiation in a way that now seems absurd. A genuine revolution against deist obscurantism only seriously took hold in the eighteenth century and saw equal status for conventional God-worshippers and more relaxed and indifferent others (and then only in the most advanced communities in the world which still do not include those of the American backwoods) in the last fifty or so years.

You still do not get much a choice in the matter across the bulk of the Islamic world or, if you accept communism as a world religion, where Communists rule. Our current revolution in sexuality is still operating on Judaeo-Christian assumptions redrafted in the forms of nature religion and traditionalism. It has still to break free and become a non-essentialist and humanist response to the scientific understanding of the merging of brain and body. Let us concentrate on just one concept that has migrated from the East to the West – Kundalini, the coiled bodily energy allegedly positioned at the base of the spine that is analogous to the source of libido in the West, unconscious and instinctive.

This energy, which some of us feel more than others, was placed in the Western brain by scientists at the beginning of the last century but is now seen to be as much operative in the flow of chemicals throughout the body as in some free-floating unconscious.  The South Asians literally embodied this force, with great imagination, as a snake or as a goddess. The force is Shakti and it comes into play when Shiva and her consort make love. We (as humans) repeat with appropriate reverence this divine coupling when we make love. It is an approach to 'spiritual experience' deliberately abandoned by the Christian priesthood.

But this is not going to be a polemic against the New Age appropriation of the idea of Kundalini or against the simplicities of Neo-Tantra. On the contrary, the arrival of every new idea has to be seen in its context – what purpose did it serve that made it attractive? The arrival of bastardised forms of South Asian thinking have proved a powerful liberating half-way house between a previous state – in which Judaeo-Christian mentality wholly disembodied libido – and a future state in which (thanks more to the slow process of scientific discovery than revelation) libido and embodiment require no special rationale but are seen as two sides of the same coin of simple human ‘being’.

One of the great questions here, because Kundalini is described in goddess and snake terms, is whether art or imagination hinders or helps true understanding. I would contend that, where there is no materialist or scientific language for what we ‘know’ from introspection or experience (but which a whole culture insists on denying), art and imagination have to come into force to avoid total dessication of the soul. But sometimes art or imagination can become neurotic, obfuscate and cause us to avoid the truths that scientific investigation reveals. So it is with sexuality and Kundalini. The reality of Kundalini is ignored in one culture (the West) but then turned into a goddess or sleeping serpent in the other (the East).

The latter is an improvement on the former but it is not ‘truth’ and it gives excessive power to priests and gurus and teachers who allegedly interpret the signs and symbols of the practice. The point being that the central lesson of Kundalini thinking is that it must be a release from signs and symbols. In a traditional society, the language of signs and symbols are less easy to escape than in a modern society precisely because we have so many of them. We have so much choice that we can be cavalier about their importance and being cavalier about signs and symbols is the first step towards rejecting them to ‘find oneself’. Simply replacing one set of signs and symbols with another – as in Neo-Tantra – misses the point.

The truths in Kundalini are perhaps best understood in terms of ‘visualisation’ – the ability to master the body through the systematic use of imagination (which involves focusing down on signs and symbols in order to eliminate them) is analogous to the rational mental modelling used to master one’s immediate social environment. The self and society are interlocked through body. The body encases the physical systems that underpin the emotion and instincts that interpret perception and make the paradigms of thought. The body is also the tool by which the mind communicates both directly and through social signs to others.

The body, in short, is central to the flow from mind to society and from society to mind. Social control of the body is a means of controlling the mind and mental command of the body liberates one from enslavement to others. Disembodied mind (especially when infected by pure reason) is useless in managing society effectively. The body in its animal state cannot have any form of meaningful consciousness, let alone a ‘spiritual’ one. The coil that is Kundalini sits at the core of the sacrum bone. This, in itself, is significant. It is where our ‘gut’ meets the ground when we sit, rested. Our feet connect to the ground, of course, but our feet connect in action and action is our working on the world, our social self.

When we think we sit - just as we lie down to sleep and lose ourselves in our unconscious dreams at the other end of the awareness spectrum. Sitting places the base of the spine close to the ground. In the visualisation, we uncoil ourselves from our base in matter, not accidentally closest to the point where we exude matter in defecation, in a series of stages up to the highest experience of being within the mind itself. The process of unravelling self from ground to mind can presuppose what that ground is (all matter is much the same at core) but cannot presuppose how the expression of self will develop though to the final state of alleged ‘pure consciousness’ which seems also to be much the same at core whoever experiences it.

The variability of imaginative meanings for Kundalini matches the variability in selves so that the libidinous truly represents only one type of mind that is of equal value to the mind whose highest method is thinking and another whose method already implies the sense of being ‘at one’ with all things as pure consciousness from the beginning. The common denominator is that the highest state of possible being is one where a person recognises themselves as integrated with matter as matter-consciousness even if some are deluded into thinking that they have become pure consciousness (as if the mind can ever actually detach itself from the body).

Does pineal gland activation have some link to the sense of heightened awareness associated with reality (confirming an intuition of Descartes)? The research is unclear but the scientific exploration of ‘spiritual states’ is still in its infancy - some of it indicates that “the practice of meditation activates neural structures involved in attention and control of the autonomic nervous system.” The physiological basis of spiritual states seems increasingly likely to be demonstrated as biochemically connected without in the least diminishing the importance and value of those states.

The self-awareness of matter-consciousness arises ultimately and only from the manipulation of matter in stages - not always through conscious mastery of the body but also (as in the tantric or shamanistic approaches) through the employment of different aspects of the body, moving stage by stage until that aspect of the body that is mind-without-social-signs-and-symbols can come into play. A combination of visualisation and the awareness of the different aspects of the body can become the means to experience the body-mind as far from its social creation as is possible. The mind is not detached from matter at all but only from the signification of the social which is presumed to be matter because it is based on matter (which is not quite the same thing).

Indeed, against all doctrine, it might be said that the final stage of awareness is as much pure matter as pure consciousness. It is not a stance that we can hold for long without a large peasantry servicing our needs or a very modern leisure economy – there were good socio-economic reasons for the turning away from sacral ideas in modernity: they become inutile, unnecessary. The full range of techniques to be desacralised are varied – meditation, breath control, physical movement, chanting. I have privileged visualisation only because this is the technique that is most conscious of the breadth of symbols that surround us and which will detach us from our own matter-mind best, not by isolating the brain into one set of symbols (such as sound or patterned image) but by developing a narrative of symbols that shift and change to reduce phenomenal noise.

All techniques may have the ultimate effect of detaching us from a world made up of signs and symbols and attuning us with our own inner matter as refined ‘consciousness’. Both alchemical analogies of moving from base lead to gold and various Gnostic formulations spring to mind. The difficulty lies when we detach a convenient tradition from the scientific basis to the process. The ‘shaktipat’ (blessing) of the Siddha-Guru may be regarded as a signal of permission to begin but there is no reason why, after a commitment arising from oneself, one might not bless oneself, give oneself permission, if you like, to exist.

Injunctions on purification and strengthening of the body might equally be seen as a discipline of detachment – a removal of distractions in order to concentrate on the job at hand and it should need no funny little rituals if the mind is aligned properly. The aim is to ‘sense’ the energy move from sacral bone to crown of the head and the metaphor of unification of the goddess with the Lord Shiva of Creation is only a metaphor of apparent unity of personal matter-consciousness. The profound illusion that the mind is one with the greater matter-consciousness of the Absolute is a physiological one but the illusion does not matter. The transformative power of the experience is what matters.

Far from not being a physical matter (as Eastern adepts insist), the final moment is the ultimate physical occurrence where we use ‘consciousness’ to describe only a state of a matter that we have not described before. It is not the world that is the illusion (except insofar as the signs and symbols of social intercourse are an illusory shell over very real matter) but our own pretensions. In gnosis, our mind is physically enabled to see things and to make connections that mere rational thought does not permit. If this is gnosis’, it is gnosis of a higher state of matter that embodies a consciousness of a more sophisticated nature, detached from phenomenal distractions. The state of being that arises – repeated in its attributes amongst people from many different cultures – is ‘gnosis’ of oneself and one’s place in the world and it tells us nothing about an Absolute which remains unknowable.

To experience this state of being and to allow oneself to wallow in its illusion is to misuse the experience. Its purpose is to re-ground us in the world, giving us a more critical understanding of the reality of the world that has been presented to us as real but is actually based on perceptions of underlying reality that are so often given to us rather than chosen by us. Similarly, despite the fears of ‘experts’ at the dangers of this sort of thinking, it is wonderfully democratic in its potential – once the priests and gurus have been put in their feudal place, modern man can make eclectic use of these techniques and others to develop a critical stance to authority and the ‘given’ without becoming lawless.

The energy derived is natural (in the original culture, Shakti is also Prakriti which is associated with the idea of nature) and as much a part of the world of science as the building of an aeroplane. The base of the experience is the formlessness of all of our past, including forgotten things that make our habits what they are. The start of the visualisation process requires an engagement with the fact of the unconscious, the deep well of rubbish that is ourselves as constructed by others. From that simple truth, the serpent uncoils, forcing its away up - unless impeded by a fearful conscious will. Even amongst the scientific papers, you can sometimes sense the fear of the rational mind at what this thinking might do to their world of signs and symbols.

The principle is also feminine for only accidental cultural reasons. It is a principle in defiance of order and the order of society is presented as a male principle. It suits the male who is an adept to see the principle as operating against his given nature which is male and it is no accident that the final stage has the principle of the feminine uncoiling and then bumping against a masculinised Absolute. This, in itself, should make us cautious about the tradition as it is promoted in the West because the energy does have libidinous and erotic aspects and does involve coupling of sorts and yet it might be considered in other ways by other minds. The sexuality involved though is 'normal' - a means to an outcome.

Nor is there anything inevitable in nature about the process. The normal mode of being in the world is actually to avoid questioning and to embed one’s self in given signs and symbols. Only a few people, often because of an edgy dissatisfaction about the given world, feel obliged to start a search for ‘meaning’ (in itself a futile search except in the performing). It requires much hard work and some risk in terms of social benefits to pursue something that may be a necessity for some (and so ‘natural’) but by no means for all. There are no intrinsic impulses in nature, only in some persons. The particular association of the sexual and spiritual, for example, is a private one (even when such practices involve groups engaged in experimentation) but all methods have in common a sense of increasing internal unification based on a ‘working’ of the libido and the body. Jung seems to have grasped this better than most in seeing the process as one, essentially, of individuation.