Giving in to Life: Sexual Fetish and the Energy of the Universe

A Morning Mind Essay

People speak of spiritual energy, psychic energy, creative energy, sexual energy, but there is only one energy, the sourceless energy that powers the universe, which began—they say—with a big bang (though the energy existed before the bang, in its potential as well as its manifestation), bursting into galaxies, planets, stars, suns, and, over time, everything on our planet, grass, flowers, trees, insects, animals, humans: creating and changing, flowing through everything, the ubiquitous and enigmatic power behind all that is. It is with us all the time, though we don’t always feel it. To feel it fully, constantly, would be to be completely awake.

We try not to feel the full force of this energy, though it is what we most basically are. Our fear is that it will blow us apart, there will be nothing left of us. That is literally true: when one feels that energy fully, there is no me, no small individual self trying desperately to hold itself together; there is only the energy, of which everything is comprised. There is only everything.

Zen teacher Joko Beck, in a handout entitled “What Practice Is,” makes the marvelous and astonishing statement that “Practice ultimately deals with just one thing, the fear at the base of human existence, the fear that I am not.” It is also an Eastern teaching that after death we encounter that energy in its pure form, and it is our pulling back from it, our fear of it, that propels us into a new incarnation. If we could fully open to it, we would unite with that energy in eternal bliss. So we are born in fear. The fear we continue to feel in life echoes that primal one.

We are afraid to feel the energy. We also want to feel it, more than anything else. We want to unite with God, the spirit of creation, the love at the heart of everything, our true nature. We want to be at one with the world and everything around us. We actually are at one with it, but want to feel that oneness. Human life is torn between conflicting desires, to be at one with everything and to be autonomous. We are afraid that if we give up our small selves we will lose something, lose all we have. Actually, we gain everything. But we don’t trust that.

So we are torn between opening to the energy and holding it off, between love and fear, the two poles of human existence.

There are countless ways to encounter this energy. As a result of our fear we have tightened against and blocked it, but physical activity allows it to flow. So athletes feel and express it, a Dionysiac physical force, as do dancers and performers of all kinds. It arises in any act of creation, writing, painting, sculpting, singing. It also comes up in massage and body work, whose purpose is to release the places where we have blocked it. Yoga brings it up profoundly, and has for centuries; the Yoga Sutra, composed 2300 years ago, speaks specifically of burning away blocks to energy. And the practice of sitting meditation brings it up: just sitting and watching the body, watching the mind, everything that arises inside and out. All that happens is a manifestation of that energy. You watch things closely and feel their pure energy.

It is a problem when we use the energy for our own purposes. We are bringing together the sourceless energy of the universe and the autonomous individual affirming himself: the athlete is trying to win the game, the artist to create a masterpiece and take credit for it. Yet any athlete who understands his sport deeply knows that all contests are just dances: there are no winners. And artists know that the product they create is not their own. The important thing is the energy that creates the art object, and that is released in an encounter with it. What is wonderful about artistic endeavor is the chance to commune with the energy.

It is a particular problem when the individual identifies with the energy moving through him, thinks he is as great as the energy itself. The ultimate example is the lunatic who thinks he is God, or Jesus Christ. (A psychiatrist friend once told me something a psyche ward patient said to him. “Doc, there’s just about this much”—he held his thumb and forefinger barely apart—“between thinking God talks to you and thinking you are God.”) Countless athletes have identified with it, most notably in my lifetime the irrepressible Cassius Clay, who ceaselessly proclaimed himself the greatest. But the older man, Muhammad Ali, laughs with an embarrassed shrug at his younger self, and knows that his epic battles with Joe Frazier (which were probably the major factor in his sad medical condition today) were monuments to the questing human spirit. There was no winner.

In that way, body work, yoga, and meditation can seem purer ways to contact energy, but even in these activities you can be trying to produce a result. Massage produces remarkable physical phenomena, but not when you’re trying for some specific experience. Yoga can become a contest in which we’re trying to be the best or most accomplished, and can be ruined—even become harmful—by striving for a goal. Meditation too can be ruined by striving for enlightenment, or even to feel energy in a particular way. It is only when we allow things to be just as they are that we are meditating.

Any activity can be compromised, because life is torn between those two poles. It is possible to do anything in order to exalt the small self.

But the most common and universal experience in which this energy arises—though it is scandalous to say so—is sex. Everyone has a sexual nature, and every sexuality both expresses and tries to control that energy. (The first time I read the Yoga Sutra, I couldn’t believe sex wasn’t mentioned. It seemed so obviously central to everything the sutra was talking about.) People are horrified when you speak of sex and spirituality in the same breath, but nothing could be more obvious than that sex expresses the creative energy of the universe. People don’t like to acknowledge the connection because they are afraid to see such power in something so ordinary and everyday. They want the divine to be out there somewhere. But it is right here.

Everyone has fetishes: some things are sexy to them and others not. We all fall short of the polymorphous perversity that Freud says is our birthright (why did he call it perversity?), and though I see no way to test his theory, it rings true. To a baby, everything is sexual, or at least sensual; babies are pure energy, open to everything. As we grow, we cut off our response to some things and open to others, for reasons that remain mysterious. Something in our experience—what Buddhists call our conditioning—brings that about.

We begin as someone who feels everything and immediately expresses it: we gurgle, coo, cry, scream, drool, shudder, shit, piss, as the spirit moves us. As we grow older, we discover such behavior is not always appropriate, so we tighten against feelings and create blockages. Our energy doesn’t flow, and we don’t feel as much. We don’t dumb down, we dull down.

In the midst of that process, some striking event takes place, breaks through the blockages and puts us in touch with the primal energy. There is a sudden eruption of feeling, excitement and embarrassment and shame and fear. From then on, any reminder of the scene brings up the energy. It becomes our fetish.

Dominance and submission is an especially interesting case because it is emblematic of the sexual relationship itself, and of relationship in general. In almost any situation, someone has the power.

The fascinating thing about this fetish is its ambiguity. It seems to say—and this is the old Freudian interpretation—that the bottom associates sex with guilt and shame, can only allow himself pleasure if he is punished for it. But pain—which affects different people different ways—is just strong feeling. The true bottom doesn’t exchange pain for pleasure, but enjoys the pain. The smacks of a whipping release energy in the same way as bodywork (which often involves pain). Energy flows pleasurably through the body. And the physical convulsions of a person being whipped are similar to those of orgasm. Sometimes the pain leads to weeping, a wonderful release.

On the surface, the top seems less “sick.” He doesn’t wind up crying, or black and blue. Actually, he is the controlling person who can’t let go and give in to feeling. He is more removed from true pleasure. And experts have suggested that the top—even when he doesn’t admit it—is imagining himself as the bottom. His pleasure is pornographic, putting himself in the other’s place. He dreams of being someone open to feeling.

Dominance and submission imitate the traditional sexual act: the man on top pounding into the partner, the woman on her back taking it. In this picture, it is the man—his muscles tight as he holds himself up, his body straining as he works to bring about a result—who seems uptight, the woman who is feeling pleasure in a more full-bodied way. The path to orgasm might be another thing, but orgasm isn’t the whole story. Energy moves in the whole act, not just the climax.

Don’t we all lie on our backs to give ourselves pleasure, let the feeling flow through us? We look like women, taking it.

We all want to submit,” a woman once said to me. “That’s the real secret about sex.” The more I have pondered those words, the more I agree, and the more it seems a profound—a spiritual—statement.

The ultimate act of submission, the one we really want, is to give in to the energy of the universe. We want—and are afraid of—the orgasm that blows us apart. We imagine the source of power that is not like waves, but like a light switch. Somebody flips it and we are just on, profoundly alive. We stay that way.

Actually, nothing stays any way. The whole nature of energy is change.

Some contemporary experts teach the tantric breath orgasm, where you don’t touch the genitals at all, learn to generate orgasmic energy with breathing and body movements. But there is a subtle and more profound way to generate that energy, with no stimulation at all. We just sit and observe it. That energy is always with us, if we open to it. We don’t really want to submit to a partner, and don’t need a partner to submit. We submit to the energy of the universe. We give in to life itself.