Marc Gafni is a cutting-edge thought leader and the founder, together with Ken Wilber, of the activist think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University and is the author of eight books on spirituality and religion, including "Soul Prints," "The Erotic and the Holy," "Your Unique Self: The Radical Path to Personal Enlightenment" and "The Mystery of Love." I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about Eros and spirituality and how to bring passion to the seekers life.
Mark Matousek: I recently heard you say that "Eros and spirituality are misunderstood topics." What did you mean, exactly?
Marc Gafni: When we talk about Eros or the erotic, we suffer from any number of confusions. There’s an important relationship between the erotic and the sexual, but they’re not the same thing. Eros is the essential aliveness of reality — it’s the experience of being on the inside. Like when you’re running and at some point you break through and you’re in the zone or the inside of experience. The second and third qualities of Eros include a fullness of presence and the evolutionary yearning of being. And the fourth quality of Eros is when you experience interconnectivity or the larger context, the wholeness of it all. Each one of those qualities of Eros is the experience that everything flows from. The goodness of life, the color in a black and white world and all ethics flow through that world.
The loss of Eros is the failure of ethics. Creativity, intimacy and relationship, politics, economics — nothing moves without the erotic. When there’s a disconnect from Eros, systems begin to break down both in the world of the personal and the world of the collective.
MM: How have we come to such an impoverished relationship to the erotic in our time?
MG: Over the last 30 to 50 years in America, we have begun to adopt a post-modern narrative that is essentially no narrative, no story. Eros and the universe are stories. The universe is driven by Eros and contains ever higher levels of newness, mutuality, dependence and embrace. Ever higher levels of empathy. The movement of evolution is not a move for comfort, but for outrageous or evolutionary love. This is the Eros that drives reality and we’ve kind of lost the narrative.
Eros is about being on the inside, but if you suggest that interiors aren’t real, then you can’t access them. Our culture has accepted too much of pseudo-scientism which suggests it’s a materialistic universe that reduces everything to survival of the fittest. This is valid but only in one dimension of reality.
Evolution is driven by an inherent ceaseless creativity, what Alfred North Whitehead called “creative advance of novelty," which is called "emergence" in evolutionary science. This is the drive to ever-higher levels of wholeness through mutuality, recognition, union and embrace. But we’ve lost touch with our wholeness and inner connectivity. That comes from the neo-Darwinian narrative that says we’re discreet, separate and competing to survive.
MM: You have written that, “The modern zeitgeist is slaying all the gods save Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love.” So when we take interiority, wholeness, interconnection and yearning away, we’re left with the sexual act; a reduction of Eros to copulation?
MG: Yes, but the sexual is not merely copulation. In sexuality you’re on the inside of the experience, you’ve entered into a different dimension of reality. You have fullness of presence and experience yearning for contact. You realize that your wholeness comes from receiving and penetrating between the masculine and feminine or whatever polarity is playing itself out. Sexuality models the erotic and invites us to experience what it means to live erotically, to love the moment open in every dimension of reality. To receive and birth something new is happening in every level of reality. From quarks coming together to form atoms that form molecules all the way up the evolutionary chain. Even before sex existed in an evolutionary level, you’ve got that attraction, which is part of the fabric of the cosmos.
MM: And yet that doesn’t resemble the experience of sex that many of us grow up with — sex reduced to a physical act that’s just about pleasure.
MG: When sexuality’s reduced to its mechanistic form, it’s boring, uninspiring and here’s the thing — not pleasurable. That’s the paradox. If you want to experience physical pleasure, you’ve got to engage in full-bodied sexuality connected to source itself. Sex is an expression of the drive for contact, the evolutionary Eros that animates all reality. If you want to have a full-body orgasm for 30 minutes, try being subtle. Try finding your audacity from a different place in yourself. You have to re-eroticize sexuality so pleasure on all its levels just explodes.
MM: Spiritual practice is almost always seen as hard work. It’s rarely connected to pleasure or to eroticism, which might give people a lot of energy in their practice.
MG: We need to stop identifying pleasure with a narrow band of quick and superficial hedonic arousal or pseudo Eros. That view exiles it to the lowest level of the physical, denuding pleasure of its depth and sensuality; of its authenticity. All addictions are based on repetitive hits of this pseudo Eros. Basically, the deeper the pleasure, the more skill it takes to get that pleasure and the more you need to be willing to delay the gratification of pseudo Eros to get authentic Eros. The same thing’s true with spiritual practice as a form of pleasure. All pleasure has involved with it, some dimension of effort, tension and even pain.
MM: I was struck by this passage in your writing as well: "Mystics teach us that to access the fullness of ourselves in every moment, we need to first linger in the emptiness for a time to resist filling up with quick hits of pseudo Eros." Why is that necessary?
MG: You’ve got to be willing to bear the discomfort of delayed gratification. The universe wants our fullest, most potent pleasure, expression, fullness and aliveness. And the structure of the universe is such that if we don’t earn it, if we don’t participate in our own transformation, we don’t get the pleasure. It doesn’t become integrated into us. If it’s just a free gift, it doesn’t become who we are. If I’m having a moment of emptiness, instead of going for pseudo Eros, what I do is just sit in it. And when I sit for just 15 minutes, I’m filled with the Eros of reality. What rises up is the fullness of my unique being. This gives me pleasure that’s beyond whatever the hit of pseudo Eros might have been. Life is what we do with our emptiness. Being willing to stay in the emptiness, I reveal myself to myself.
MM: Talk to me a little about why erotic living requires that we experience both the masculine and feminine.
MG: Masculinity and femininity is way too identified with male and female. Those can be confusing gender roles. I would rather talk about line and circle. Line is classically referred to as masculine or phallic and feminine is the circle of breasts, womb and curves of the feminine. We’re all constituted from a unique inner-penetration of masculine and feminine. We are the unique expression of our hermaphrodite quality; each person a unique combination of the line and circle — a unique gender.
I’m completing a book now with several colleagues about getting beyond the old gender polarity and recognizing our unique combination of Venus and Mars, of the line and circle properties. If we’re missing our line quality or circle quality, we’re fundamentally incomplete. There’s a kind of inner marriage that has to take place. Line qualities include penetrating insight and the circle has qualities of radical, dynamic receptivity. We need both and if you’re lacking in either, you’ll become pathologically receptive or lose your ability to create appropriate boundaries. You’ll be too penetrating and unreceptive, always offering a solution but not receiving, not listening.
Hieros gamos is the divine marriage of the masculine and feminine and for the first time in history, the inner marriage is a genuine option for every human being. We can become fully whole, awake, alive, erotic human beings. Aliveness and creativity course through us when the line and circle merge.
MM: It’s no accident that there’s so much fascination now with gender. As you've said, everyone is his or her own gender, his own combination of lines and circles.
MG: Absolutely. And essentially, this is the core point that we want to make in "Beyond Venus and Mars." I think the gender-queer people got it half right. Because they understood their identity is not exhausted by their masculine or feminine. It’s an important part of identity but it’s a box and it diffuses who you are. That was their great intuition. The weakness of the gender-queer movement is that it actually kills the category of gender. If there’s a problem with the category, you work with it. You try and see how it can be more supple and forgiving. And if you really want to try to know yourself — which is critical — you’d be able to look and say, these are the line qualities that are really strong, these are the circle qualities that are really strong. This is how they combine and play off each other in me and all of a sudden, you’ve got this unique soul print which is emergent through your unique gender. It’s beautiful.
MM: In times past the sacred and profane weren’t polarized in the way they are today. A sacred thing could be good or bad or a profane thing could be good or bad. What do you think is the role of the profane, the transgressive, the dark side of desire on the spiritual path?
MG: That’s a great question. I’m a tantric practitioner, which has nothing to do with sexuality. Tantra means we don’t reject anything; it’s the principle of non-rejection. The ability to integrate darkness or shadow and feel the holy spark within the shadow is critical. If we don’t, if we deny it, then it hijacks us because it’s always there. It’s always exerting its pull because it has enormous energy. When my unique self is distorted or unlived, it appears as shadow. The same thing is true in sexuality. When I’m not living in full Eros in my life, the erotic is exiled to the sexual. When I try and get the sexual to fulfill all of my erotic needs, the sexual collapses under the burden of a weight it can’t bear.
In spiritual practice, you have to break the boundary and limit belief of your small self to become your full, gorgeous, stunning, unique self. If you can’t break through to no-boundary consciousness, to live in a bigger context, then you’re stuck, you’re lost, you’re contracted. Boundary breaking and transformation are qualities of Eros. If you’re not boundary breaking in authentic ways, then you exile boundary breaking to the sexual, only getting a sexual hit if you’re doing something like having an affair. And when you break that boundary, you have to keep upping the game, because you’re trying to get all the erotic energy out of boundary breaking from the sexual.
MM: Can you give some practical advice on how folks can re-eroticize their lives?
MG: Sure. The simplest way is to open the aliveness of your heart. Put your right hand on your heart and open it like you’re opening a door. When you make a physically embodied motion, as we know now in neuroscience and have always known in spirituality, there’s an effect. The second practice is radical appreciation and receptivity. Utterly receive the person you’re talking to, without interruption. You’re receiving their beauty, depth and uniqueness. You’re listening, interested, and appreciating. Practice receiving another person, then a moment, then this conversation and then the ocean. The third practice is very simple and elegant. I call this, “Outrageous love notes.” Every day you write a one-line love note to yourself, to the source, God, to a teacher or a friend. And in that note you exaggerate. It’s not polite, sweet, proper or appropriate. You become Rumi as you allow yourself to act this way, because you become outrageous love in the first person. It’s not about you, it is you. Those three practices: opening heart with physical intention, the experience of radical receptivity and writing outrageous love notes will re-eroticize your life.