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Transcendent Sex

Pioneering psychologist Jenny Wade’s surprising study of mystical experiences in the bedroom

by Elizabeth Debold

Though searching for enlightenment between the sheets may be a favorite postmodern path, that wasn’t Jenny Wade’s aim in writing Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil, published in 2004. But after having a few surprising spiritual experiences during sex, she began to wonder how many other people found themselves unexpectedly catapulted into another dimension of reality when in a lover’s arms. Wade, whose day job encompasses working as a developmental psychologist (she authored the impressive Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness), organizational consultant, and faculty member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, did what any good academic would do: She created a research project. Soliciting interview subjects from among her lecture attendees and students, Wade pulled back the bedclothes and uncovered a whole uncharted domain of unusual altered-state experiences. Speaking with people untrained in the esoteric sexual arts, she learned that they were having experiences “worlds of magnitude above and beyond what most of us think of as an ordinary experience of lovemaking.” Wade now estimates that such “transcendent sex” experiences, which can occur before, during, or after sex, are far more prevalent than one might think. Looking at all the evidence, she thinks that one person in eight (liberally) or one person in twenty (conservatively) will have such an experience in their lifetime.

In this EnlightenNext interview, Wade brings a remarkably lucid and level-headed perspective to this fascinating research that defied all of her own preconceptions and stretches our sense of reality far beyond the boudoir.


EnlightenNext: How did you become interested in what you call transcendent sex?

Transcendent sex

Jenny Wade: Well, after a lifetime of ordinary and actually fairly great sex, when I was in my forties, I started having unusual experiences. They came as a complete surprise to me. In the first one, I had visions of being in another place and time in history. I really wondered about my sanity. Then one day while making love, I had an experience of dropping into the void—of pure white light, of nothingness. The world gradually reconstituted itself but in a different way than before. As often happens with satori experiences, I was struck by the profundity, the absurdity, the total beauty of it. I was so amused that I had missed this all my life that I burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. Tears were coming down my cheeks! This brought sex to a halt (as you can imagine). After I composed myself, my lover and I began talking about it. He then confessed that he had also been having transcendent experiences with me.

So that got me curious. I wanted to find out what kinds of altered-state experiences people have during sex when they haven’t had specific training in Taoist or tantric esoteric practices. I also wanted to know how they understood what happened to them. I found that when people couldn’t explain their experience or when it transcended normal Newtonian reality or if they seemed to experience a benign or beneficent force, they would say, “Well, it must have been God” or “It must have been Spirit.” In fact, whether or not people believed in God or Spirit, the way they interpreted their experience almost invariably enlarged and enhanced their quality of life.

EN: Can you give an example?

JW: One woman and her lover, who was a student of mine, had fixed dinner at home and then made love for a time. As they were making love, she got very frightened because suddenly she was sucked away from her body and became afraid that she wouldn’t be able to get back in. She thought her soul was going to die. She started trembling, and her lover began stroking her in a nonsexual way, saying, “Calm down, you’re safe here, you’re not dying; just go into the experience.” So she let go. He said that he could feel vast amounts of energy coming off the central meridians of her body and that her eyes were moving rapidly as though she was having a dream in REM sleep. But she saw herself walk through a doorway and then found herself surrounded by the presence of God. She had a feeling of being totally loved, being completely precious to God, as was everyone. All the things she had regretted in her life made absolutely no difference in this flood of unconditional love. This was totally contrary to her beliefs—she had thought that if she ever met God, she would learn how she didn’t measure up.

EN: Both your own story and this one point to one of your most fascinating findings, which is that the majority of the time, partners have completely different experiences.

JW: Yes, lovers rarely felt and shared the same experience. The biggest exception was past-life experiences where it often seemed that both lovers suddenly found themselves, as one of my participants said, feeling as if they were watching a movie and couldn’t leave the theater even if they didn’t like what was happening in the film. Some people didn’t compare their stories until after it was over; when they did, they discovered that the details were very much the same: “Yes, you were wearing a red dress,” or “The tile around the fireplace was dark green.” But those were the only times that people shared the same experience.

Also, I found that the type of sex—for example, heterosexual or not—and the mechanics of it were not important. However, the longer one engaged in sexual activity (whatever it might be), the more likely it was that these experiences would occur. Most of the people I talked to were engaging in sex for hours. But I had some people who had these experiences just holding hands or kissing; for others, it happened after sex was over.

EN: Why does sexual intimacy provide such a fertile context for these experiences?

JW: When you think about it, many of the things people do naturally during sex are similar to activities that create altered states. For instance, sex for most people involves repetitive movement and repetitive sound, which is not that different from chanting or trance dancing or other things different cultures use to bring about altered states. There is also sensory deprivation—you may have your eyes closed or be in a dimly lit situation. At the same time, there’s arousal in one or two sensory channels, like touch. It’s like meditation or centering prayer, where there is one-pointed attention and alertness while also being relaxed.

Moreover, in the best of circumstances during lovemaking, we really are trying to get beyond our own egos, in some way trying to merge with our lover. In ideal situations, we can view this as a sacred dance of love that we’re doing together. But this kind of experience is not necessarily just a concomitant of true love. I found it also with people who were having transient or casual sex, because during casual sex they’re not inhibited—it’s no holds barred.

Sex also gives us a way to awaken many of the energetic centers in our bodies in different ways than we normally do—which is part of the kundalini tradition. People who have access to their sexual energy can begin to work with it and open up different levels of experience than they usually have access to.

EN: Were there any surprises for you in your findings?

JW: Almost every hypothesis I had coming into this research was shattered. One supposition I had was that women who were multiorgasmic, particularly women who could chain orgasm and keep releasing endorphins, might have very different experiences both qualitatively and quantitatively. That was not the case at all. The ability to have these experiences was not in any way related to people’s ability to orgasm.

EN: Do you think that sexuality is a serious spiritual path on its own?

JW: Entered into thoughtfully, it can be. The tantric tradition is partly about this. A lot of neo-tantra in the West has been stripped of its spiritual roots, but classic tantra aims to reach nonattachment regarding the body and physical sex. So if we’re talking about sex in that larger context, I would say absolutely yes. But we in the West don’t yet have an effective way of understanding that path and the potential it has for spiritual development.

Historically, spiritual authorities in every religion have attempted to control the body’s appetites and deny sensuality out of fear that these things divert us from cultivating clarity of mind or because we find it hard to control ourselves. There was clearly a socializing influence provided by these taboos. And since many aspects of sex were included in such taboos, there’s now a backlash or countermovement. More and better orgasms are the order of the day, and we look askance at people who aren’t multiorgasmic or really great lovers. I’d like to see us truly get to a place of choice in relation to sex. From an evolutionary standpoint, ideally you would engage with sex not because it was once forbidden or because you see it as the only right path. You would make intelligent and ethical choices about whether to engage sexually based on your wisdom and integrity to do what’s right at the right time in your life.


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This article is from
SEX - The Good, the Strange, and the Sacred