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Sacred Sex

Making love can be a gateway to unity with the great mysteries

Sacred sex, which is the experience of ecstasy, is the real sexual revolution. Sacred sexuality is about love–not merely the positive feeling between intimates, but an overwhelming reverence for all embodied life on whatever level of existence. Through sacred sexuality, we directly participate in the vastness of being – the mountains, rivers, and animals of the Earth, the planets and the stars, and our next-door neighbors.

Sacred sexuality is about recovering our authentic being, which knows bliss beyond mere pleasurable sensations. It is a special form of communication, even communion, that fills us with awe and stillness.

Sacred sexuality is about the re-enchantment of our lives. It is about embracing the imponderable mystery of existence, about the curious fact that you and I and 5 billion others cannot account for our existence and our sexuality.

Spiritual seekers have struggled in vain to realize truth, God, or higher knowledge by escaping from what they termed “the prison of the body.” In treating the body as an enemy, the antagonist of the spirit, they doomed themselves to experiences of an amputated God. They failed to see that the body is part of the great Mystery.

When I was a student in the yeshiva, I remember thinking of sexuality as that lousy trick that God played on us. How could God do such a terrible thing as to implant in us an urge that is so difficult to resist? I would even get “bad thoughts” from looking at the ads for Maidenform bras that were in the subway.

This very same urge has been reinforced time and time again since we stopped being amoebas and turned into humans. Just think about how this was reinforced. I had two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents. They all did it. Now see how it spreads out to countless beings who all did it. Now think of the children who will have children who will have children who will all do it. And all this fantastic amount of genetic information is concentrated in one flash, as it were, of transmission. How else could it be but ecstatic? How else could it be when so much of the past has to transfer itself to so much of the future through such narrow orifices? It can't be but ecstatic.

The Baal Shem Tov, who was a great master of Hasidism, once said, “When you get these bad thoughts, what's bad about them is the garments that they're in. If you take off the bad garments, you see the holy sparks behind them. And these are the ones that glitter in God's crown.”

The body holographic

In body-positive spirituality, body and world are rendered transparent. They become like glass, pervious to ordinary light. The body reveals itself to be a hologram in which the universe is captured–a vision that is at once playful and humorous.

In the sexual act, we want to escape the sense of being imprisoned by skin and separated from the rest of the universe. Often, however, this desire remains quite unconscious, and then sex is engaged in as a mere diversion from the concerns and stresses of daily life. Our contact is only skin deep, and consequently we continue to feel alone, abandoned, betrayed, and unloved.

But sexual love can be a hidden window onto the spiritual reality. At the height of passion or in the fullness of love, we might suddenly feel transported to a different plane of existence where all of our sensations, experiences, and thoughts occur against the peaceful backdrop of an overriding sense of at-oneness.

Love is so universal in the world that it even underlies the physical forces of nature. What is gravity but the loving force of attraction between two bodies in space? How marvelous, how basic love is in the universe!

The ecological spirituality called for today is founded in a deep recognition of the unity of life – a unity that is celebrated in the act of love. Through erotic passion we overcome our habitual egoistic insularity and reach into the core of other beings.

There is a rumor that there were times when sex was practiced in sacred precincts. There, both males and females were in the priestly service of ministering to the worshipers and embracing them within the mysteries of life.

I am not sure if this is factual. But the vision and the dream that it ought to have been that way is what makes that thought not just a fantasy. The deep drive in our being is to that intent. Those of us who have experienced this have sought to experience it again.

Somewhere in the dark there lurks the thought that the puberty rites of Bar/Bat Mitzvah and confirmation had something to do with initiation into sexuality.

I ask my Bar Mitzvah boys, “Do you masturbate?” And first they are a little sheepish about it and then they say, “Yes,” and I say, “You know what? It is a good thing to do on the Sabbath! Take your time, put on some music, and explore your body and what feels good for you, and most important, let God in.”

Can you imagine when a youth learns to honor the power and the fire how different their sexual encounters are going to be later on?

The language that we have currently to speak about sexuality and to impart it to the next generation needs help because we aren't able to bring it into holy discourse any more. We badly need a word other than “fuck.” Hear the short vowel in there? It's all expletive. I would like a “oooooo eeeeeoooooww” in there!

The language of sexuality was at one time embedded in the sacred. Take the first sentence of the Songs of Songs of King Solomon, for instance, “Oh, please kiss me with the kisses of your mouth. Your loving is sweeter than wine.”

How I wish that people would begin to create films with a couple caring, nurturing each other, preparing for lovemaking. I wish they would produce films that would show a young person how loving happens, because I fail my children when I cannot take them into our bedroom and show them how it's done. Every generation learns so much from generations past about everything else but our sexuality and how to make it sacred. Sex we have to pick up in the gutter.

A blessing

Holy lovemaking remains a mystery in our culture. Imagine taking a retreat with someone like Zada Zalman, a spiritual elder, who as part of his spiritual instruction guides men and women into the experience of sacred sexuality. The realized elder can lead younger people into seeing the relationship between sex and God, teaching how the union between man and woman, between the masculine principle and the feminine principle, can lead to a state of mystical rapture and oneness with the universe–the same state described by the mystics of all the world's religious traditions. With this attitude, the wise elder can encourage people to make love sacramentally, transforming a physical act into prayer and celebration.

It's similar to the feeling of blessing I give as a rabbi when I preside over a wedding. The blessing runs: “Give great joy to these beloved companions, as You gave joy to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Blessed art Thou, Oh Lord, Who causeth the bridegroom and the bride to rejoice in each other.”

This blessing sanctifies the couple's lovemaking. I'm saying, in effect, Dear God, be present with them in their lovemaking; make it a divine celebration.

This type of guidance gets away from the terrible stereotype of the dirty old man. What I'm suggesting is that there's another dimension to an older man's sexual nature. We might call this “the sacred old man.” This speaks to the fact that older men–and women also–bear witness to and experience a profound opening to the universe of sex and sexual energy, along with an understanding of its sacred place in the cosmos. This comes only when there's a certain thinning out, a certain transparency of the ego, which generally comes with older age. This ego-thinning doesn't destroy the ability to experience and enjoy sex, but in fact universalizes it. One's happiness is then extended into the happiness of others. One becomes, then, the principle of blessing.

Imagine a young couple having a sweat with elders. The grandmothers and grandfathers would sit in the sweat lodge, feel the billowing heat and inhale the sweet fragrances, and purify and bless the young couple. They might even give instruction in the ecstatic nature of spiritualized sex. In this way, the elders, speaking as representatives of the generative goodness of life, could initiate the couple into one of life's deepest mysteries.

God willing, whether you do it alone or you do it with a wonderful partner, send out blessings! You will see what a shift this will make. When you think about what your partner needs in his or her life and call down blessing with every gentle loving touch, God is not absent from the sacred altar – the bed. God is invited.


Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi founded the Spiritual Eldering Institute and is professor emeritus at Temple University. He holds the World Wisdom Chair at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and is the co-author of From Age-ing to Sage-ing, published by Warner, NY. He has studied with Sufi masters, Native American elders, Catholic monks, and Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama.

Eve Ilsen is Rabbi Schachter's wife and a therapist and performance artist specializing in the practice of transformational imagery. She has studied with mythologist Joseph Campbell, and has gathered songs, stories, and wisdom from around the world.

This piece includes material from a talk given to the 1994 conference of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology and published by the Journal of Family Life.

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