Satori in the Bedroom
Tantra and the Dilemma of Western Sexuality
by Katy Butler
Freud once said that four people--two mothers, two fathers--lie in bed with every couple making love. If only that were all. Hugh Hefner is under the covers with us, and Carl Djerassi, who invented the birth control pill, and Alex Comfort, who wrote The Joy of Sex. Shere Hite is there taking notes, and a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control, and Pope John Paul II and Kenneth Starr. Cindy Crawford's perfect body may float in space above us, or Long Dong Silver's, daring us to turn on the light and look at how we don't measure up.
When a man sleeps with a woman, he sleeps with her past as well, including her memories of pregnancy, date rape, abandonment or shame. When a woman sleeps with a man, she sleeps with the young boy caught reading his father's Playboy magazines and the teenager in the back seat, expected to know everything without being shown. Each of us in the industrialized West carries into the bedroom not only personal memories, but collective ones: we are layered with exhortations, like sedimentary rock. Sex, the Victorians told our great-grandmothers, is dirty: Save it for the one you love. The mature female orgasm, said Freud, is the vaginal orgasm: That comes only to women who resolve their penis envy. Women's sexuality, said the marriage manuals of the 1950s, is problematic, like the delicate wiring of an old MG: Husbands must be master mechanics. Vaginal orgasm is a myth, said the feminist theorists of the 1980s. Find the clitoris. Now.
Sleeping around will ruin your reputation, we were told in the fifties: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk through the fence? Sleeping around will free you, we were told in the sixties: Smash monogamy. Men and women are pretty much alike, we were told in the seventies. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, we are told today.
Many of us enter the bedroom now as if we have been told we are about to play a high-stakes game. There is no rule book, or else it's been hidden. Everyone else, we think, knows how to play. We charge down the field. We pass the ball. A whistle blows. The rules have changed. The teams are being shuffled. We'll be playing with a shuttlecock now instead of a ball, and the goalposts have been moved to the other end of the field. We start running and the crowd roars, but we're not sure what we did right. Now we are on the bottom of a pile of bodies. We are given five different rule books and told to choose one that suits us. (We have no idea what book the other team is playing from.) Bleeding from the shin, we strap on our battered equipment again and once more run down the field.
We lie down with all of this, and more, when we lie down in bed with each other. We sleep with the war between men and women fueled by patriarchy and differences in physiology, and with the uneasy cease-fire in the erogenous zone that followed the feminist and sexual revolutions. We sleep with the legacy of the 1970s, when you could find, on many a middle-class nightstand, the dry, clinical bestsellers of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the pioneers of behavioral sex therapy. The bright lights of their science were supposed to banish our fears and superstitions, like crucifixes held before a vampire. Yet the fear of pleasure, and of being discovered having pleasure, still runs beneath our bedroom floors like an underground river.
For most of us, our first sexual act was also an act of secret rebellion against our parents. The memory of this defiant split lives on in our cells in the disembodied, suppressed yet obsessed way our culture approaches sex today. Few of our fathers talked to their sons about how to enhance a woman's pleasure or prolong their own; few of our mothers ever told their daughters about the delights or even the location of the clitoris. We found out anyway, and paid the price.
In the dark recesses of our mental closets lies a negative cultural dowry--the muumuus that missionaries gave the naked Polynesians; the penitentes' cat-o'-nine-tails; the chastity belt; and the confessional--all the trappings of the Augustinian Catholic tradition that declared sex a dirty distraction on the path to God and the source of original sin. ("As the caterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on," wrote the poet William Blake two centuries ago, "so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.") All of this we bring into the bedroom.
When we sleep with each other, we sleep with images we've absorbed and, without knowing it, those our lovers have absorbed as well. Like fast food, images of other people's orgasms, stripped of context and connection, are now available 24 hours a day and consumed alone and on the cheap. They demand of us a bravado we rarely feel. They lurk eternally on the Internet and in the phone-sex banks, at the corner video store and in the Congressional Record . Our bedrooms are colonized by them. When a woman lies down in bed with a man, a light show of images plays over her body without her knowing it: red-satin garter belts, perhaps, or beaver shots or Marilyn Chambers or Monica Lewinsky or the Penthouse Pet of the Month. When a man lies down with a woman, images of imaginary men play over his face without his knowing it--the hero of Tristan and Iseult, perhaps, or a Tammy Wynette song or a romance novel. No wonder we feel split within ourselves and from each other. We expect sexualized romantic love to carry a greater psychological burden than does any other culture on earth while we simultaneously denigrate the sexual. And so we reverberate between sexual obsession and sexual shame.
Last September, we found on our doorsteps newspapers full of the details of the president's intimacies with Monica Lewinsky--the thong underwear, the cigar, the joke sunglasses, the rejected girl crying in the rain. It didn't matter what the details were or the context in which they occurred. All that mattered was the telling of them. Opening the paper, some of us imagined how our own intimacies would read some morning, printed in black and white and dumped on our neighbors' doorsteps.
What we read in the papers that day reflected the impoverished language we bring to sex. In 1931, the English novelist Virginia Woolf wrote in The Waves, "I need a little language such as lovers speak, words of one syllable." But we can speak of lovemaking everywhere except the bedroom. For the delicate skin that touches our lover's most tender places, we have no words except the pornographic, the childlike and the scientific. We speak of vaginas, labiae, clitorises, cunts, hair pies and "down there." We call it a prick, a dick, a sledgehammer, a penis, a pee pee or Mr. Happy. Our worst insults are sexual: cunt, slut, whore, dickhead, pussy-whipped, cocksucker.
And so we lie in bed with each other, reaching for pleasure, tenderness and connection, with both too much and too little to guide us: Hustler on the newsstand, Dr. Ruth or Dr. Laura on the radio and Debbie Does Dallas on the VCR. "You do not have to be good," wrote the poet Mary Oliver. "You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." But that's a big only. No wonder we are sure that someone, somewhere, is having better sex than we are. No wonder someone, somewhere is pretending to have better sex than we are. No wonder we fear we will never get it right.
Yet sometimes we do get it right--or it gets us right. Many of us have experienced something in bed that the languages of pornography, sex therapy, feminism and the double standard could not contain. It might have been the afternoon we washed our partner from head to toe in the shower, kneeling under the spray to scrub even the soles of her feet, until washing became a ritual of tenderness and awareness. It might have been a dawn when we woke from a dream experiencing what the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich called a "full-body orgasm," in which we were the wave and also a body drifting at the water's edge, pulsating to our fingertips as the wave broke on the shore. It might have been a night a man looked into our eyes and stroked our nipples for hours until we gave in to our own responses rather than following what we imagined to be his timetable. Or a night a woman looked into our eyes while we were coming and we felt safe, seen and known.
In these moments, lovemaking is sensed as healing, wholesome and holy. Our focus broadens out beyond orgasm. Our small selves are no longer in command, and we give ourselves over, little boats on a deep river. The fear of not performing well disappears, the ghosts are banished from the bedroom and the present moment absorbs us. The West's self-created divisions--between sacred and profane, heart and pelvis, male and female, victim and predator, body and soul--are temporarily healed. We understand what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, "If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred," and what the 16th-century Anglican marriage ceremony meant when it included among its vows, "With my body, I thee worship." Our bedroom is no longer hostage to the porn palace, the sex lab or the unfinished war between men and women. For a moment, the bedroom becomes a ritual space where we enter trance and forget time.
For most of us, such moments are rare and random, despite the mixed sexual blessings of the past three decades. The sexual revolution rightly told us that sex could be a domain of pleasure and self-expression. But its prescription--quantity over quality--did not free us. The feminist revolution challenged the practice of sex as a ritual of loving female submission and encouraged women to speak of their sexual desires and sexual violations. It lit up ancient chasms between the genders, but did not bridge them.
Modern sex therapy helped thousands with simple, effective behavioral techniques, usually focused narrowly on achieving erection, intercourse or orgasm. Yet few of us have much of a clue about continuing to create the more profound joys of sexuality--especially after the first six months to two years of a relationship, when hormones subside and desire fades. We may move from arousal to contentment or indifference or contempt. We may not know how to contend with softer, slower erections and other changes related to aging. A surprising number of stable couples stop making love much, or altogether. The ghosts return to the bedroom. We may lie down in resignation in the bed we've made together, or walk once more out the door.
Or not. Some of us will embark instead on a quest for a fuller experience of intimate sexuality. We will use whatever tools we can, depending on who we are and the decade in which we set out. We may enter Reichian therapy, wrap ourselves in Saran wrap, read Nancy Friday, follow The Rules, or repeat phrases from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, but we will not give up. We want to banish the bedroom's ghosts or at least replace them with more benign presences. Risking the humiliation our culture visits on those who speak of their own sex lives rather than other people's, we will try to decolonize the bedroom. We sense that this quest requires not "more of the same"--not more sexual perfectionism or ever-more-exotic partners or positions--but a broader context, a change at the metalevel. If we embark on this quest today, we may buy a book, watch a video or go to a weekend workshop on Tantrism, which is now the West's most popular form of adult sex education.
Presaged by the popularity in the 1960s of the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, a 3rd-century Indian sex manual, Tantra has become a postmodern hybrid. On the most prosaic level, it is nothing more than a pastiche of positive sexual attitudes and techniques drawn from Western humanistic psychology, Chinese Taoist sexology and classical Indian Tantrism--a wild sexual and religious tradition that influenced both Buddhism and Hinduism and flourished in India about 500 A.D.
This esoteric system used breath, visualization and other yogas to arouse, channel and transform energy throughout the body. Its meditations often took the form of visualizing gods and goddesses in sexual union. In India, adherents of the tiny sect of "left-handed" Tantra took things a step further: in secret rituals, they broke all the rules of their caste-bound society, consuming taboo foods, such as alcohol and meat, sounding yogic bijas or sacred syllables and coupling with one partner after another. In contrast to monastic traditions that suppressed sexuality and avoided women, Tantrikas welcomed the energies of aggression and sexuality and transformed them. Men did not ejaculate, and the goal was to move arousal up the spine to the brain in an explosion of enlightenment and bliss. Sex was not a dirty detour from the path to God, it was the path
Today, Tantra's esoteric practices are being pressed into the service of goals that are tamer, more domestic and less religious: uniting sexuality and intimacy, and enhancing sexual pleasure for long-term couples. It's not the techniques that count so much as Tantra's enlargement of the context in which sex is held--as pleasurable, inclusive, healing, and holy. This widening of the lens was apparent as soon as modern Tantrism first registered on the American cultural radar in 1989, when a 450-page book called The Art of Sexual Ecstasy: The Path of Sacred Sexuality for Western Lovers tried to sweep the clutter of negative sexual images out of the Western bedroom. Written by Margo Anand, a writer and sex workshop leader who had studied psychology at the Sorbonne and meditation in India, it was like no sex manual the West had ever seen. She spent eight pages alone describing how to prepare a bedroom for lovemaking. Think of the bedroom as a "sacred space," Anand wrote. Vacuum the bedroom and take out the newspapers and coffee cups. Bring in plants, flowers and candles. Drape a scarf over the bedside lamp to create soft lighting. Walk three times around the room with your partner, misting the air with a plant sprayer of scented water while saying "As I purify this space, I purify my heart." This, Anand implied, was as much a part of sex as kissing.
The suggestions might seem impossibly precious. But ceremonially cleaning the bedroom and bringing in flowers and soft lights contained a metamessage: You do not have to go somewhere else or become a sliver of yourself to have sex. You don't have to "do the nasty" while hiding in the dark from your disapproving parents. When you bring flowers into the bedroom, you bring in more of yourself as well, and that can make you realize how much you had previously left outside the bedroom door. And if the bedroom is already inhabited by ghosts, why not bring in flowers as well?
In the place of pornographic slang and Latin words, Anand suggested Taoist phrases that were free of negative Western sexual connotations. Try saying "jade stalk"or "wand of light" for penis, she suggested; for vagina, substitute "cinnabar cave" or "valley of bliss." Or call them "yonis" and "lingams," after the Sanskrit words used to describe the stone sculptures of sexual organs that are still bedecked with flowers and worshiped in rural temples in India. "Behold the Shiva Lingam, beautiful as molten gold, firm as the Himalaya Mountain," she quoted the "Linga Purana," a Hindu ode to the penis of the god Shiva, Lord of the Dance. "Tender as a folded leaf, life-giving like the solar orb; behold the charm of his sparkling jewels!" It was heady stuff for a culture where "testosterone poisoning" is a running joke and the only goddess worshiped is a virgin mother. And it cleared the decks for something new.
Anand and other teachers of modern Tantra suggested that sex could involve all of us, including the warring inner parts we think we've transcended but have merely avoided: the lustful and soulful; the wounded and voracious; the slutpuppy in her Victoria's Secret lingerie and the good girl in her flannel nightie; the sensitive postfeminist man and the crude teenage boy.
Last October, at a five-day, $795-a-person workshop for couples at the Esalen Institute, yoga and Tantra teacher Charles Muir wove these warring inner and outer sexual worlds together. On the first night, he spoke about his own sexual upbringing to 23 couples sitting before him in a circle. His listeners ranged in age from 22 to 73. Among them were two Latin American academics, four lawyers, a black woman doctor, two construction managers, two women who worked in television, several massage therapists from the Esalen staff and an Irish farmer. Some sat as entwined with their partners as trailing vines, while others betrayed, in their gestures and body language, uneasiness with each other and an inequality of love or desire.
Muir, who is now separated from his wife and coteacher, Caroline (she wanted sexual fidelity; he didn't), runs the Source School of Tantra in Maui, Hawaii, and leads frequent workshops around the country. He was wearing a silk shirt and an amethyst pendant. He was slim, in his early fifties, with brown hair, protuberant eyes and spatulate fingers that gave him the look of an elongated frog. His language was closer to New York street than Hindu temple.
He had come of age in the Bronx, he said, during "The Great Fuck Drought of the Fifties." Everything he knew about sex, he said, he had learned from Johnny Patanella, the leader of his childhood street gang: Get it up, get it in, and get it off. Fuck 'em hard and fuck 'em deep. Muir said that before he discovered Tantra, he was a yogi on the mat and a "sleazebucket" in bed. He said that men give nicknames to their penises because they want to be on a first-name basis with the one who makes all their important decisions.
There were shocked laughs, a snigger. The men thought they were long past this. The women didn't want to think their men had ever thought this way.
But there was a method to his crudeness. Once Muir bonded with the part of the men that had eternally remained the teenage boy, he gently, without emasculating them, brought them into the sexual realm of context, emotion, feeling and intimacy traditionally defined as female. "In lovemaking, women lead with their hearts," he went on more softly. "Men lead with their second chakra [their groins]. We hurt each other."
Tantra, Muir said, could help them make love stay. "The average couple makes love 2.3 times a week for the first two years," he said. "After two years, the average couple makes love once a week--and making love can be a well of energy and healing.
"Chemistry is temporary. You're going to learn to base love not on chemistry--which lasts six months or two years, if you're lucky--but on alchemy. When the chemistry is no longer there, alchemy says you take what is there and you change it. Become a master alchemist."