Andrew Cohen: We want to talk about a fun and challenging topic today, which is the relationship between sexuality and spiritual development. As we both know, sexuality can be an incredibly confusing area of human life, one that is very difficult to negotiate with simplicity and clarity. There are a lot of reasons this is the case—especially for those of us who have grown up in this postmodern cultural context and are now striving to discover what lies beyond it.
The sexual impulse is one of the most overwhelming forces we can experience. The drive to procreate, as I see it, is the physical expression of the evolutionary impulse behind this entire universe. What could be more powerful than that? When any one of us feels the stirring of the sexual impulse within our own body and mind, we are feeling, at a biological level, that same creative surge that propelled something to burst out of nothing fourteen billion years ago. It’s awesome to consider. But, of course, in our lack of humility, too many of us underestimate the power of what we’re actually dealing with, and it’s easy to see why we often lose our balance in this arena. The biological procreative impulse is designed to be overwhelming. And then, of course, we have to add to the picture the way culture conditions us to respond to this powerful impulse.
In the postmodern era, for example, we are in a unique situation, because we have grown up in the age of sexual liberation, in which most traditional taboos have been broken. We have cast aside many seemingly outdated notions of morality in relationship to sexuality. I grew up, as I’m sure you did also, being told that sex is basically a good thing, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody. Sexual experimentation was implicitly encouraged. I was never really given any guidance as to how to make sense of this particular area of life—everything was very open. Only when I became more interested in my own spiritual development did I begin to see how problematic and often deluding, or obscuring of awareness, sexuality can be when our relationship to it is very conditioned and unliberated. And I’ve noticed that being given sexual freedom doesn’t necessarily make an individual more enlightened about the role that sex or sexuality is supposed to play in human life. I’ve met many sophisticated, smart people over the years who have plenty of sexual experience, but I can hardly say I’ve met any who express a sense of real clarity, self-confidence, and objectivity in relationship to this area of life. The question of what is the right relationship to this overwhelming force is an important one. We only have to look around us to see that there is no easy answer—in spiritual or secular life.
What’s often happened in traditional spiritual contexts is that people either have chosen to leave this particular part of life behind or have integrated it into their religious life and practice. Some religions, like Judaism, for example, include lovemaking as an integral part of their cultural code of conduct. But that usually involves very traditional roles for men and women that many of us, particularly in the West, have outgrown. So I’m very interested in finding a way to embrace this dimension of life that makes sense in our time and culture and that neither avoids it nor makes it the central focus of our attention.
Most approaches to sexuality fall into one of two extremes: either concluding that “sex is bad,” as do some of the traditions or, as does the culture in which we grew up, concluding that “sex is good.” But I realized at a certain point that sex itself is neither good nor bad. It’s basically a neutral force—an evolutionary imperative that’s being carried out through this particular biological function. The function itself has no moral dimension: it’s neither good nor evil. Of course, it can be expressed in ways that are positive or negative. But I think realizing that the nature of the force itself is beyond these moral distinctions is very important, because it compels us to really think about the question, What is my relationship to this neutral force? So that may be a good place for us to start.
Ken Wilber: That is a good place to start. And I think the distinction between sex as ordinarily understood and sex as a neutral but much larger force is really, really important. It’s a distinction that is made in the traditions, and it is really crucial to understanding transformation and development. Those people who are interested in an integral or evolutionary perspective don’t have any trouble understanding that there is a spectrum of consciousness that has developed over time. The terms we often use to describe these stages in the evolution of consciousness are archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral. Each of those levels of consciousness represents an increase in care, in compassion, in love, in concern, in awareness—as long as there isn’t a pathology or a dysfunction. But what is not always understood is that alongside that spectrum of consciousness is a spectrum of prana, which can simply be defined as energy. This notion is found in the great traditions from Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism) to Vedanta (Hinduism). One way to put it is that “every mind has its body.” Every stage of consciousness is supported by a type of mass energy, or prana.
When we use the term prana, there are two meanings. In a small sense, prana means vital energy, bioenergy, bioelectricity, the energy of vitalism, and so on. And in its small form, prana is responsible for uniting one organism to another. In its big form, it’s responsible for uniting one sentient organism with the entire universe. And that oneness, of course, that One Taste, that nondual experience, is what the great liberation is all about. It’s what being one with everything is all about. And it brings you a deliverance from the small self and the small self’s sex.
So when we talk about spiritual liberation, about enlightenment, about waking up, we’re not just talking about a shift in consciousness, which is almost the only thing that’s talked about nowadays. “Just focus on the power of the now,” people tell us. “Just pay attention to the present moment.” And they’re right on the money when it comes to consciousness. But they forget the embodied part of the picture. They don’t address the actual flesh, matter, energy part, which is prana, sexuality. And so what we want to see with enlightenment is not just a shift in consciousness from small self to Big Self or Big Mind but also a shift in sexual patterns, which is a shift from narrow prana to big prana—which is the sexuality that Big Mind has, if you will.
And so what we’re looking for is a spectrum of sexuality that parallels the spectrum of consciousness from archaic to magic to mythic to rational to pluralistic to integral. And very briefly, one of the systems in which we find these correlations drawn out happens to be the chakra system of the Hindu tradition. There are seven chakras, and those chakras are energies that correspond with the seven major levels of consciousness, running from the bottom to the top. Level one is the energy of food, level two is the energy of sex (in the small sense), level three is the energy of power or intentionality, level four is the energy of love, level five is the energy of self-expression or self-actualization, level six is the energy of self-transcendence, and level seven is the energy of oneness with the All. So this is a type of map that we can find in the traditions that reminds us that every change in consciousness has a corresponding change in energy, or sexuality, in the body.
Cohen: So what you’re saying is that sexuality develops through an evolutionary spectrum in the same way that consciousness does.
Wilber: Yes. And this is what tantra is devoted to. Tantra came along and said to the Neoplatonic traditions and the Theravadin traditions and so many of the already existing traditions, “Look, you can get people to awaken, to become one with the All, by sitting on a cushion, crossing their legs, and meditating for ten years. Focusing on consciousness, they can drive their identity up the great chain of being to that full oneness at the top as a conscious realization. But guess what, folks—you can do the same thing sexually. And sexually is much more fun!” So once you learn how to use these sexual energies, you’re going to drive your sense of identity up through the chakras—from being one with food, to being one with sex in the narrow sense, to being one with power, then with love, with self-expression, with self-transcendence, and ultimately, to being one with the All. But at each of those steps, it’s going to be a blissful, joyous, radically erotic feeling. Instead of having to use willpower to push yourself through these stages of development, you can use fucking. You can use visualizations of sex and activities of sex and engaging prana in a real and vivid and vibrant and living fashion. So that’s one of the things we want to keep in mind here as we talk about a post-postmodern sexuality. One of the things that we want to slip into this new formula of what sex is and can be is: Sex is a route to God. It is a short, fast, incredibly blissful path to discovering your own deepest, highest self. That’s one of the great things that tantra came along to remind us of, which we want to include and update and clean up and revise to take account of what we’ve learned in the modern and postmodern world, particularly with regard to the evolutionary current.
Evolutionary spirituality is actually driven by big prana, by this big energy, and that big energy is the correlation of big awareness, of the Big Self; it’s the correlation first of what you call the Authentic Self and then the purusha, or Big Self. What the traditions didn’t understand so well is the incredibly dynamic nature of these energies, the fact that they are evolving and that the goal is not to get into some equilibration state where nothing is moving and you’re in a sort of unmanifest absorption. That’s actually a lower realization. The true realization is coming out through that unmanifest state, united with big prana and therefore finding a union with everything that’s arising, that’s driven by Eros, by this fundamentally sexual orientation toward the entire manifest world.