Take a look at the world around us, and it becomes readily apparent that we are living in a time of simultaneous convergence and deconstruction. As there is a resurging interest in spiritual practices in many circles, there is also a breakdown in the patriarchal, hierarchical church structures. The specter of clergy sexual abuse intermingles with a worldview promulgated by the church about the nature of relationships and sexuality סדנת מיניות לנשים no longer has meaning for people today – men and women, young and even middle-aged. The gender roles we were raised with have broken down and blurred. The image of nuclear family as mom, dad and 2.4 children has been superseded by a far greater spectrum of family possibilities. Bisexuality, androgyny, gender fluidity and polyamory are more and more common, especially among the twenty something generation.
Erotic energy is far more than sexual energy. It is life energy. As our culture has evolved splits between mind and body, head and heart, heart and pelvis and sexuality and spirituality, we have forgotten what it means to be fully alive.
“Erotic energy is not just about having sex,” continues Suzanne Blackburn, whose participation in sexuality and spirituality work has catapulted her personal and spiritual growth. “It is about living.” As we have become disconnected from our bodies, hearts, souls, spirits, one another and the divine, we have lost touch with many of the most beautiful pleasures and experiences possible in being human. So many people today are searching for meaning and purpose, most often expressed through job dissatisfaction, addictions and broken or troubled relationships. The rise of industrialization, urbanization, the nation-state, global dislocations, war and poverty all contribute to the sex-spirit split for us both individually and collectively.
“Because our culture has repressed sexuality so much, it is repressing everything,” acknowledges Blackburn. “People who have repressed sexuality have also repressed other areas of their lives. If you are not joyful about your sexuality, it is hard to be joyful about watching a sunset or watching kittens play. Hopefully, by breathing life into one, you breathe life into all of it. It’s like giving birth. When the baby comes out of the birth canal and takes a breath, the baby pinks up. When we open up, breathe deeply, have fun, when we dance, we pink up.” This backdrop provides fertile soil for an emerging movement working to integrate sexuality and spirituality.
Living in the Midst of a Paradigm Shift
Bob Francouer, a teacher of graduate and undergraduate classes in Human Sexuality at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the editor of the Encyclopedia of Sexuality notes, “Sexuality and spirituality have always been joined and interwoven from the very beginning of the human race. It is only in the last 2000 to 3000 years of Western civilization that the two have been separated. And they have not just been separated, but have been seen as antagonistic to each other. The split between sex and spirit came out of the Greek philosophy of dualism, and a dichotomous view of humans as matter/evil/female and spirit/good/rational/male.”
Just as Western civilization went through a period of major cultural upheaval 2000 to 3000 years ago, we are undergoing a period of major cultural turnover and paradigm shift now. “The institutional churches are losing their credibility in dealing with sexuality and spirituality. They are losing their authority,” continues Francouer. Francouer is well versed in the changing paradigm worldwide. The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality is written by 300 experts in 60 countries on 6 continents. The encyclopedia includes in depth reports of all aspects of sexuality. Each country has a section on religious and ethnic influences. Having collected information from many cultures all over the world, “it becomes very clear the spiritual traditions are undergoing major revolutions in their patterns of thinking. People in many cultures worldwide are thinking now not in terms of marital and procreational values, but in terms of individual self-enrichment and fulfillment. The spiritual is a very important part of the new perspective.”
Significant leadership in the sexuality and spirituality is coming from women. Francouer acknowledges, “As women in developing nations are exposed to Western concepts and experiences of human sexuality, they are linking their religious traditions with the visions of Western sexuality. As women become more empowered in third world nations, they are gaining more control over their bodies and sexuality, turning more to their spiritual heritage.”
“When the human psyche reaches the point of convergence and breakthrough into a new level of consciousness,” reflects Francouer, “diversity is the first thing that happens. The energy spreads out and explores all kinds of possibilities. There is no one ideal paradigm nor five ideal paradigms. All the models we have had in the past have real difficulties being applied in today’s world. So people are creating their own models and patterns.” The new paradigms created need to include and consider the collective as well as the individual.
A Quiet Movement and Its Roots
The emergence of the sexuality and spirituality movement is very quiet. For one, the subjects of sexuality and spirituality are each daunting. Many people are frightened at the thought of delving more deeply into either one. Too, Ani Colt, publisher of Spirituality and Sexuality magazine and founder of the Sexuality and Spirituality Union Network (SUNetwork) points out, “One of the things that energized a lot of movements was the common experience of feeling oppressed. A sense of oppression contributed to the emergence of blacks, women and homosexuals. But the oppression of our sexuality is not even recognized because sex is always in front of us. It’s in ads, on TV, in the movies. It is much more subtle oppression. As a result, it hasn’t given us that organizing energy that has created the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans gendered community.”
Sex educator, sex coach and author Loraine Hutchins adds, “Erotophobia/sex-negativity is hard to battle because it is all pervasive and systemic. It doesn’t affect any one group at the expense of another like racism. However, erotophobia, like racism, really hurts everyone and diminishes us all. I think sex-negativity is a function of heterosexism, a system of oppression created by patriarchy, involving male supremacy and mandatory heterosexuality. This oppressive system hurts men as well as women. The parallel is in looking at how whites are made less by racism, in contrast to non-whites. The hurts are different and need different remedies.”
“Organized religion is of little help in the sexuality-spirituality field,” Shalom Mountain Retreat Center founder Gerry Jud acknowledges. “I make a big distinction between religion and spirituality. Religion is about controlling behavior. Spirituality is about development and liberation of consciousness – becoming consciousness itself. Sex permeates all of life. When people are intimate with each other, touch each other, look into each other’s eyes, dance ecstatically with each other, the sexual component is out front. You cannot take an effective spiritual journey without taking into account that we are sexual beings.”
The first nationwide survey on sexuality and spirituality was conducted by Gina Ogden, a sexuality therapist and author of Women Who Love Sex: An Inquiry into the Expanding Spirit of Women’s Erotic Experiences. She is presently writing a book based on her survey results and hopes that the data will provide a baseline for broadening definitions of human sexuality, especially for women. Oggen contends that the field of sexology itself has reinforced the split between sexuality and spirituality. While she was a visiting scholar at the Radcliffe Institute, she happened upon the earliest sex surveys – conducted by women MDs. “The first survey, a century ago, was filled with hand-written responses about sexuality and spirituality,” notes Ogden. “But since the 1930’s when male scientists took over the surveying of sexual behavior, sex research became focused on what was easy to count and measure – performance by way of intercourse, orgasms and spasms, the mechanical part.” In her 25 years of experience as a clinician and workshop leader, Ogden found these mechanical features to be only a fraction of what women said was important.
“Almost 4000 women and men answered my survey with an outpouring of stories about sexuality and spirituality, about love and empathy and meaning and sex as a direct path to the divine. What is fascinating is that these stories echo the responses from those early surveys, as if they’re filling in almost a hundred years of blanks, the mysterious black holes in the history of the sexuality and spirituality movement. Maybe the scientific arm of the present day movement begins with Celia Mosher, who conducted that first survey in 1892!”
Ogden continues, “There is brain research coming out now because with advanced technology like MRI’s and PET scans we can really look at what is going on in the human brain over a period of time, like stop action. Researchers are finding that during sexual stimulation more than one center of the brain is lighting up. This demonstrates an organic basis for arguing that sexuality and spirituality are connected, that sexual response is multi-dimensional. This is in direct disagreement with all the sex research that focuses on performance, and the medical diagnostics that say if you can’t perform to their standards, it’s called dysfunction. There may be a political and social movement going on, but it’s important to remember that the capacity for connecting sex and spirit is in us. It is in our cells and our brain structure. It is built in. It has taken us 3000 years to remember it, to rediscover it, to validate it.”
A Wide Spectrum of Trainings and Practices
Many trainings, practices and methods have evolved to help people learn to work with sexual, spiritual, and life energies in their bodies, relationships and lives. These methods have been developed by visionaries who have built a community or network of people around them. There is some cross-fertilization between these communities, but more often the right hand doesn’t even know there is a left hand yet, never mind what it is doing.
Existing practices and trainings approach integrating sexuality and spirituality from many different directions. For example, the Human Awareness Institute approaches this work from an emotional and interpersonal direction, giving people skills for deeper intimacy and connection through its Love, Intimacy and Sexuality workshops. Tantric work, on the other hand, approaches the body and its energy field from a rootedness in spiritual philosophy. Sterling community work focuses on distinguishing the differences between male and female energy.
One of the common threads amongst the many approaches is the creation of a safe, sacred community circle. Joining together in holy ritual is a basic human need. We are starving for this kind of sacred circle. Trainings and workshops such as those profiled below provide help meet this need. I have selected a handful of significant programs in the sexuality and spirituality field, all of which have evolved over the past several decades. The purpose is to illustrate a range of what is available.
The Human Awareness Institute: Restoring the Purity of Heart and Soul
Stan Dale, 73, founder of the Human Awareness Institute, that has offered Love, Intimacy and Sexuality workshops worldwide for thirty four years, found himself on a path of integrating sexuality and spirituality while stationed in Japan when he was twenty seven years old. Having had a successful career in radio prior to being drafted, Stan worked at the Armed Forces Korea Network while in the service. He was put on temporary duty in Tokyo for the Far East Network, and was invited to a cast party for a motion picture being filmed there, “Joe Butterfly.” The cast party took place at a geisha house, a stunning 22-acre facility with trees, butterflies and flowers and buildings that looked like palaces. Through a twist of fate, he ended up living there for seven months when an old man who lived there invited him to stay. The old man told everyone at the geisha house to treat Stan like his son. The head geisha, nearly 70, gave Stan a quartz stone.
“She said to me,” remembers Stan, “‘What do you see?’ I said, ‘a stone.’ She said, ‘Yes…but come back and tell me what you see later.’ This went on for three days. I knew it was a trick. I examined it, had a magnifying glass, asked others what they saw…At the end of the three days, she asked me what I saw. Like a bolt of lightning, I saw the beauty of the universe. The words came out of my mouth.”
“At an event that night, the head geisha stood up. She gave me an honorific bow and said, ‘If you can see the beauty of the universe in a stone, you are now a geisha.’ I hadn’t known what geisha meant, but I sensed it was very special. The geishas taught me to look beyond everything I look at, to listen beyond everything I listen to, to go beyond what I touch. I learned an old adage to live by. If God wanted to hide, God would hide in human beings, because that is the last place we would think to look to find God.”
Stan learned to look for and see the spark of God, the magnificence that is every human being which may be camouflaged or obscured as we take the hard knocks of life. “As we walk through life in this world, the garbage keeps getting dumped on spirit,” notes Stan. Sufficient garbage gets dumped that people don’t recognize their own heart and spirit. “When something is in the body that shouldn’t be there, when it is taken out, it heals itself,” acknowledges Stan. “The heart heals itself. The soul heals itself.”
Just as the heart, soul and spirit get obscured by the garbage of life, sexuality has been equally misunderstood. “When we get the craziness and dirtiness out of the word sex, and put it where it belongs in spirit, heal and soul, then we get purity. “My vision is for every human being to be aware that their spirituality and sexuality is who you are, not something you get. My vision is for every person on this planet to see what is available when the garbage is indeed taken out.”
Shalom Mountain Retreat Center: Sustaining Spiritual Growth and Intimacy
Gerry Jud, now 83, is one of the true pioneers in the sexuality and spirituality movement. After getting a Ph.D at Yale, he started his career as a pastor in New Haven, CT. “I became interested in the question of why, in religious groups, the level of intimacy is exquisitely limited. People who get started in the field of a religious path soon level off. The journey comes to a halt. This troubled me as a church person, and so I began to study a way in which intimacy could be found among such people who are seeking a spiritual life, and how it could be sustained.”