After 25 years of Tantric practice, the essential unity of sex and spirit seemed so obvious to me that I almost forgot the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily see it that way. The Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan said, "Love is the sign of Spirit," and in my mind, this always included erotic love. When a friend invited me and my teaching partner to give a talk on Sacred Sexuality at his Church, I realized I would have to find a way to explain myself that would make sense to the uninitiated. Here is what I said.
Why is sex sacred? The dictionary defines sacred as "made or declared holy, dedicated or devoted exclusively to a use, purpose, or person worthy of reverence or respect." The word itself comes from the Latin, sacra meaning "sacred, holy, consecrated," that is, blessed or revered. The noun (singular) is sacrum, meaning "a holy thing or place."
While modern religions have defined sacred and spiritual as being separate from the body, from nature, and certainly from sex, the ancient Latin roots of the English language imply a different understanding. It is no coincidence that the word sacrum is also the anatomical term for the triangular bone at the base of the spine, the very place which Tantra tells us is the seat of the sleeping kundalini or Shakti energy. When aroused through Tantric practice, the kundalini rises up the spine to awaken the spiritual centers in the brain.
So our language suggests that once upon a time, Western civilization understood the sacred nature of sex. This wisdom was lost during the Inquisition. In fact, one might say that this was the purpose of the Inquisition: To create a cultural shift from sex as sacred to sex as sinful, as the movie, Dangerous Beauty, beautifully demonstrates. Now it is time to return to the ancient wisdom of worshipping life rather than death. Or as we said in the sixties, "Make love, not war."
Sacred is understood differently in indigenous cultures, where the concept of sacred is one of relationship rather than edict. In native cultures, humans, animals, plants, and especially the Earth herself are sacred because we are all part of the Whole. No one and no thing have to be proven worthy to be considered sacred. All of creation is inherently sacred because it is part of the interconnected web of ecology that sustains life. In this worldview, Earth is not only seen as sacred but as a living being. Sacred is a kind of awareness, not a function of ego, of the logical mind, but more of an intuitive or direct awareness of patterns running through everything around us. This is sometimes called synchronicity, or the Tao. Here is another meaningful coincidence! It just so happens that tantric lovemaking turns on that part of the brain that perceives patterns.
So we have two different ways of looking at the meaning of Sacred Sex which are totally complementary. Just as the love of the Mother and the love of the Father are complementary, the Western and the indigenous understanding of sacred are two sides of the same coin.
Sacred Sexuality is a part of virtually every spiritual tradition around the world. In the last couple of decades, elements of Tantra have been blended or fused with elements from Taoism, Native American, African, Christian, Pagan, and Jewish paths as a basis for re-visioning sexuality.
In the pre-Christian view, sex is sacred simply because it’s part of life. In the Christian view, sex must be shown to be deserving of reverence. No problem. Here’s why it’s worthy.
- First, Sacred Sexuality implies an awareness that sex is the inception of life, of all that is. Without the sexual act, none of us would exist — at least not as incarnate bodies. Sacred Sexuality acknowledges that our life force and our sexual energy originate from the same source. It’s an expression of awe and wonder that transcends any particular culture.
- Sex is sacred because of its role in bonding. Mutually satisfying sexual exchanges naturally intensify bonding, but sex can take place without bonding if we’re careful to keep our hearts closed. Sex opens the heart only if we bring the energy up. The Tantric attitudes of slowing down, awakening all of the senses, tuning in to subtle energy, letting go of judgment and blame, expressing gratitude for the gift of life, and savoring the present moment are wonderfully supportive tools for intimate relating.
To bond with someone is to form an enduring connection — to feel a strong sense of mutual caring, intimacy, and appreciation. Bonding satisfies our need to belong and can occur in the absence of sex whenever a powerful shared experience creates a feeling of kinship. Not only is bonding critical to survival for many species, but it also supports health and happiness. People live longer and have fewer problems when they have a family-social-community context. Sex helps bring people together and keep them together. What else could motivate us to overcome the difficulties we encounter in intimate relating? Lovemaking is more fun and more readily available than natural disasters, war, and other life-threatening situations which also create strong bonds among those who survive.
Erotic energy works its magic far beyond the plant and animal level as well. Look at gravity. Gravity is the name we give to the force of mutual attraction that holds the cosmos together, but spiritual teachers throughout the ages have pointed out that magnetic pull is just another name for erotic love.
Sex is sacred because of its role in accessing peak experiences of love, oneness, and healing. Humans have an innate need for peak experiences of bliss, merging, and ecstasy. We have a deep longing for the (re)union of sex and spirit, for union with the Divine. When we access expanded states of consciousness through sex, we validate our intuitive sense that sex can be worship and that worship can be erotic. Tantra and other paths of Erotic Spirituality teach us to embrace and honor the body as a temple of Spirit, rather than trying to deny our natural sexual impulses.
So when we bless, purify, or honor the body as part of a sexual encounter, when we bond more deeply as a result of lovemaking, or when sexual union catapults us into higher consciousness, we make sex sacred.
In closing, I want to make a distinction between sacred sex and erotic spirituality. Recognizing that our bodies and our sexuality are sacred is a good beginning, but for erotic activity to truly take its rightful place as a spiritual path, much more is required. All valid spiritual practice takes one in the direction of awakening to Oneness, and sexuality which feeds the ego and creates separation simply doesn’t qualify.