Loving Arts - Sam Keen Interview
Sarah van Gelder talks with Sam Keen about the complex arts of loving.
posted Oct 20, 1997Sarah: Your new book is about what it means to be a great lover, but it's clearly not a sex manual. What do you mean by being a great lover?
Sam: Well, first of all, if I start off asking, "Am I a great sexual partner?" that's a recipe for disaster.
The primary question is "How do I become a loving human being?" My intimate sexual relationship will be healthy and creative only in the degree that I stay with that question.
The great heresy of our time is when we start talking about love in terms of sex. Our concentration on sex has paradoxically ruined our sexual relationships - has trivialized them.
The Balinese say, "We don't have any art, we do everything as beautifully as we can." For pre-modern society, what we call sex is an integral part of life - even an integral part of metaphysics. The goddess or god figures placed in the fields signify the fertility and creativity of the Earth. Fertility and creativity is very much a part of the original experience of sexuality.
When we strip sex of all of its meaning and focus instead on heightening sensation or even on heightening commitment between two lovers, it's really a very truncated vision.
Sarah: So you'd turn Freud's theory on its head. He says that all desire has a sexual root, but you're saying that desire for sex is actually rooted in other desires?
Sam: Absolutely! All sexuality, even the most twisted sexuality, is rooted in the desire to create.
Plato's idea of Eros wasn't exclusively sexual. Eros was a force that drove the water through the rock and the sap through the tree.
Plato would ask: Why is it that an acorn becomes an oak tree? Because it has a longing. The longing to become an oak tree is contained within the acorn.
I think that sexuality is a part of our longing to join with others, to become who we are, to create. Paradoxically, it's when we see it in that context that we are going to have the best sex.
Sarah: You've said that our emphasis on sex as the foundation for all relationships actually cuts us off from other forms of love.
Sam: That's right. We're all going to be out of any sexual relationship for a good part of our lives - at the very least when we're children and much of the time when we're old. So, what do we do? In most traditional societies it's friendship, not romance, that is most highly valued.
Sarah: I've been struck by how often outside North America you see touching that has nothing to do with sex. For example, in China it's not unusual to see two male soldiers holding hands. Friends hold hands as just a normal expression of affection.
Sam: That shows one of the deep kinds of sicknesses of our society - that we have so sexualized touch: If you touch me, that's sexual; if I didn't want it, it's harassment.
It's become almost taboo for us to touch people when we don't have sexual intentions. I mean teachers can't touch kids anymore!
And we're creatures of touch! We live more and more in a world of electronics, in a world of images of images of images - the world of "information." Information doesn't smell, it's not tactile, it's a bunch of wavering images on a screen. But we're embodied creatures. We were created within a body and nurtured by a body. Most of our experiences of ecstasy have to do with touch. So, what kind of civilization are we creating in which we are literally "out of touch?"
Sarah: It's interesting that we're losing track of touch at the same time as the news is dominated by stories of sex: sexual harassment in the military, Clinton's alleged affairs, the rape in Brooklyn. Why do you think there's such a preoccupation now?
Sam: I suspect that to the degree that our relational lives - our love life in the largest sense - are impoverished, we become interested in sex.
And the more frustrated we become in our efforts to create, the more we become hypnotized by violence. Violence is the final resort of impotent people, and a great deal of what we're talking about in terms of sex is really about violence.
Our consumer society dehumanizes - we've become consumers of images, and sex is a big part of that. It's treating other people as objects, and treating this ecstatic relationship as a joining between a couple of anonymous bodies; this dehumanization is also a form of violence.
Sarah: You've coined the phrase, the colonization of desire ...
Sam: That's right. We are creatures of longing; every religious tradition has told us that. But the great change in the modern world came as mass advertising began to creep inside our desire system and say, "Look, I know what you want. This is what you want. This will really satisfy you."
We are bombarded by images that literally colonize our desire system. The advertising industry tells us that our deepest longings are going to be satisfied by a Rolex, or by a new Buick, or now it's the Range Rover.
And when we get those things and we're still not satisfied, we're hooked into trying again, like addicts. We're hooked on getting the next fix instead of going back to those deep, deep questions: "What is it that has real meaning for me? What is it that I really desire?"
Sarah: I believe you've also said "You can never get enough of what you don't really need."
Sam: Well, no. I've said, you can't get enough of what you didn't want in the first place. And that's the basic wisdom all addicts finally come to - the discovery that alcohol or gambling was a substitute for something else.
Likewise, this excess - this drive for that fifth million - isn't about money. The great American parable about that is Citizen Kane. What was all his striving about? What did he really want? Rosebud!
When we're addicted, we're obsessed with getting more - whether it's sex or money or luxuries. In all of our lives there's a 'Rosebud,' a longing that's not satisfied by whatever we've become addicted to.
Sarah: Was there a moment of epiphany for you when you realized you didn't know what you really desired?
Sam: Yeah, it was a gradual epiphany that came in the period before the breakup of my first marriage. I thought that I was a loving guy who knew what I wanted. I'd always thought the problems in my marriage were just my wife's dissatisfactions. Unfortunately, it turned out I was wrong.
I got my wife to go to a therapist to get her "fixed up" and then went along to the therapist myself to help him fix her up. He gingerly suggested to her that maybe half of the problems were mine - that I was angry at her, angry at my mother, and distrustful of women. Boy, that got me really pissed off with that jerk!
Then one day it came down on me - oh my God, he's right!
At the time I was teaching courses on love at a seminary; I was supposed to know about this stuff! And to find out that I didn't - to find out that a lot of what I called love was fear, and a lot of what I called caring was just trying to control somebody, and what I called play was sarcasm and cruelty.
Somebody once said, "When the clock strikes 13, everything that went before becomes questionable." I never, never thought there would be a divorce, but when it happened, the clock struck 13.
After that, I began to ask myself, "What is it that I do want? And what is it that I call love?"
Sarah: One of the themes that you return to repeatedly is the tension between solitude and inner work, and deeply knowing and being known by another person. Was that a significant issue in your marriage?
Sam: Well I didn't have that separation in my first marriage; I didn't know the difference between me and her.
Now, I'm sitting in a beautiful little studio 300 feet from the house. My wife has a little apartment downtown; I don't even know where it is. I come here to my studio to write, and sometimes I sleep here. It's a place where I cultivate my relationship with myself in solitude. If I don't do that, I get very confused in the intimacy about who I am and what the difference is between what she wants and what I want. Then I cease to deepen the wells out of which I have water to bring to others.
Sarah: Many people spend a lot of time alone, but their experience is more one of isolation.
Sam: That's true, but solitude has nothing to do with isolation. One of the major things that we find in solitude is how much we need other people. In solitude we discover that the idea that we are individuals isolated from other people is a lie. Buddhism and other practices of meditation are about busting through the illusion that I am separate and apart and isolated.
And many of the scientific discoveries related to quantum physics and the study of ecology have confirmed this intrinsic connectedness.
Sarah: Let me follow up on that. In some spiritual traditions, the ties of love and sex are seen as distractions from a search for transcendence, and in others they are seen as a means to greater union with God. How do you see that?
Sam: In the Buddhist tradition when you come to somebody, you bow and say "Namaste," which means I recognize that which is sacred in you. That fundamental religious insight doesn't mean that I recognize that the mind in you is sacred, or any one part of you is sacred; it means I recognize all of you as sacred. It means that I'm not going to violate you economically, and I'm not going to rip you off sexually. Nor am I going to be ripped off sexually.
It means that whatever relationship we come into is going to be one of respect and of acknowledgment of the sacredness of each other.
And it's within that sacred context, and a context of celebrating the body and celebrating sexuality that we can try to figure out whether sex is appropriate or not appropriate - not whether we're legally married, and have taken a bath, and it's Friday night and the lights are off.
Sarah: Hinduism and Buddhism also have a tradition of celibacy.
Sam: They do, that's right. What's interesting about these traditions is that the celibacy is not anti-sexual. People don't flaunt their sexuality - they aren't out with miniskirts advertising - but they're not prudish either.
Buddhism and Hinduism say celibacy is fine, but there is also a path to God which uses sexual intercourse and the conscious disciplining of desire. There's choice; you can chose the left-hand path or the right-hand path.
That was not part of the Christianity I grew up with. Nobody ever said, "Get a sexual partner, and practice breathing and allowing the ecstasy to go into your mind and into your sense of unity with God."
Both Catholicism and the tradition I grew up with, the Protestant / Fundamentalist church, have injured people a great deal. Both impose guilt, hypocrisy and shame.
If you work with people in any kind of therapeutic situation, you see how many enter into marriages and relationships with an enormous sense of guilt and a sense of the dirtiness and unacceptability of their own bodies.
Sarah: What is the relationship between the skills that make you a good lover and those that make you a compassionate, loving citizen of the world?
Sam: I think that the journey of love is the journey away from feeling that we are at the center and the raison d'etre for all things. I think the journey of love is a journey into union with other forms of life - the realization that we are in a commonwealth of beings.
I'm reading a book that's on the bestsellers' list, The Man Who Talked to Horses, about a guy who spent time with herds of wild mustangs and learned to talk like a horse by using his body the way they do.
It's a marvelous book because it shows the difference between the old idea of breaking horses and making them fear you, versus this very concrete illustration of what it means to become a cosmic lover.
We can't love nature in the abstract. But we can go out and observe and appreciate. I am sitting in my office right now looking out over the creek, and a pileated woodpecker just landed on a tree right in front of me. It's enormous, the largest kind of woodpecker in the United States.
Well, I can say that I love those woodpeckers. There used to be a nest right over there, and I would sit and watch them - I would pay attention to them.
And I give them respect - even a kind of commitment that I won't hurt them. There's a big dead tree out here, and somebody once told me I should cut it down, but I said, "No. The woodpeckers need that tree."
The elements of attention, appreciation, and respect are exactly the same elements or skills that I practice in relationship to my daughter or my son.
Sarah: Why would someone choose to cultivate empathy or compassion when it opens you to a greater number of painful experiences?
Sam: The deepest forms of love always involve suffering. I remember when my first baby got her first shot. The doctor came with a needle and put that shot in Lael's bottom, and man, I winced! I felt that needle go right in my bottom, and it hurt!
Then there's the compassion I might have for the people killed in the little village in Algeria. I see a picture of a slaughtered child, and my heart goes out to those people. I'm not intimate with them - I will never be intimate with them - but it's not accidental that the great religions of the world have said that compassion, not intimacy, is necessary to becoming fully human.
We have only one choice; whether to feel more or less. We can try not to come in contact with anyone else's suffering, or we can open up and get more suffering - and more joy!
Ultimately, the great crisis in our society is that we increasingly try to privatize love. We think we can have our little love nest down where the roses bloom. Outside, it's okay to be against other people, it's okay to compete, it's okay not to know or care about your neighbors. The community as a whole can go to hell!
The notion that we can have satisfying love only in intimacy, without loving strangers, is psychological nonsense. We are not splittable that way. It's the great illusion.
Sam Keen is author of To Love and Be Loved, (Bantam), Hymns to an Unknown God, and Fire in the Belly. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and holds a PhD in philosophy of religion from Princeton University.
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