Can You Let Yourself Experience Pleasure … or Does Guilt Get in Your Way?

For Week #10/52 Theme: "Guilty Pleasure" by Sonny Abesamis 2014

For Week #10/52 Theme: “Guilty Pleasure” by Sonny Abesamis 2014

The other day I sat with a beautiful 22 year old Christian woman.  She radiated youth – curious, insightful, earnest, just, vital. She had just finished college.  She had traveled to many places in the world where war and cruelty had ravaged the spirit, body and land of women and children. She was looking upon her life and the life around the globe with new eyes and asking new questions, and I found her tenacity and urgency invigorating.  Then she said, “When I came home from my travels I was so exhausted I felt unable to care for myself in even the most rudimentary way. Through this recovery process I slowly began to learn how important it was to listen to the wisdom of my body.  ‘It is time to sleep.’  ‘It is time to eat.’ ‘You need a hug, a listening ear.’ But now that I am recovered, I find I struggle with feeling selfish when I find myself enjoying a cup of coffee too much. When I feel too much pleasure. How am I to embrace my sexuality if I cannot even let myself fully enjoy a cup of coffee?”

Inside Christianity is a long history of the narrative warning against pleasure and valuing those who deny pleasure.  Serving others is often juxtaposed to pleasure, as if you cannot do both.  The narrative says that serving others is selfless and experiencing pleasure is selfish.  Thus if you are experiencing pleasure you must be doing something that is selfish and not truly in service of others.  For if it was truly in service of others you would not be receiving any pleasure from it at all.  Of course when we really think about this, we can hear how ridiculous it sounds. Yet this narrative lives on, tormenting those who struggle against guilt when they experience pleasure. For Christian women, sexual pleasure is one of the places most devastated by this narrative. They cannot imagine knowing the pleasure their body can bring them, and if they do, they cannot imagine celebrating it or being grateful for it.  Instead they feel shame and condemnation. One young woman said to me, “If I began to learn about my body through exploring my genitals, using a mirror, finding out what parts feel like to touch, learning about my own arousal cycle, seeing if I could have an orgasm, even masturbating, I could never tell my roommates.  NEVER! They believe this is absolutely wrong! We’ve all been told down-there is off-limits to us and to men until marriage.”

So how do we break free of this narrative?

Here are 3 things you can do:

  1. Understand that pleasure is a renewing gift from a loving God given to restore you so you can be filled up to do whatever work you are called to do in this world. Attend fully to this pleasure, let it fill you and nourish you.
  2. Let your heart be grateful. Pleasure is a gift – it is not something we earned or deserve – it is a gift for us to enjoy and care for.  Pleasure needs to care for us.  If we are sharing pleasure with someone else, it needs to care for them too, and for the relationship between us.  When we let ourselves feel our gratefulness our heart swells with joy and the pleasure we feel is multiplied.
  3. Help others know pleasure too. So many people are weighed down by stress, ‘should’s’, burden’s and narratives that forbid them from enjoying the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, gratefulness and pleasure.  Helping them see these gifts in their lives will help balance and renew their spirits and give them new life and vitality.

What brings you pleasure? Do it!

  • Make a list of what brings you pleasure – take 15 minutes. Make sure there are things on your list you can do in 1 minute, 5 minutes and longer. Things you can do easily and things that take more planning. Things done alone and things shared.
  • Now, place on your calendar at least one pleasure a day, if you are brave 2 or more.
  • When you engage in pleasure, bring all 5 of your senses into the experience – feel it – see it, taste it, hear it, touch it, smell it. Bring all of your attention into the moment of pleasure and let it fill you up.
  • Let your heart be grateful and push away the voices of guilt and shame. These narratives are not true or helpful. They will leave you stuck and depleted, less able to be who you were created to be.
  • Share your story of pleasure with someone you trust. Support each other.
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The SPU Shooting and the Mystery of Faith

Marcus Yam The Seattle Times

Marcus Yam
The Seattle Times

Faith is not what we do when we want to play it safe, be reasonable, make perfect sense. Faith, like love, is vulnerable and risky. But it is also what nourishes hope and grounds us in a purpose and community that transcends fear. Faith, as seen in this student written essay, gives a peace beyond reason.


An open letter to the SPU gunman

Originally posted June 6, 2014

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Do You Have Marriage Insurance?


Nearly every month one of the therapists I supervise will staff a case with me of a couple who is separating or divorcing because they didn’t know how to take care of their relationship and they didn’t do anything about it when it started to fade away. By the time someone spoke up … that someone was done. It is tragic … truly tragic! More often than not, kids are involved.  These are not marriages where there is abuse or infidelity … these are marriages where the demands of life coupled with growing up in a culture that didn’t prepare them with the skills needed to grow and strengthen an intimate connection, leave a couple adrift.  If no one wakes up, and shakes things up and says, WE MUST FIGURE OUT HOW TO DO THIS NOW – THERAPY, AN INTIMACY RETREAT, SOMETHING!, it is only a matter of time.  I heard another story this week – married 15 years, two kids, a slow drift and then one says, often the wife, “We can go to therapy, but really, I am done, I’ve moved on.” In her mind, she had been telling him of her unhappiness, but he wasn’t tuned in to her channel.  In his mind, he had been doing all he could, but it was never quite enough. They weren’t seeing or hearing each other – they didn’t know how – they were missing each other – for years. Yet, learning the emotional, relational, spiritual and sexual skills of how craft a loving deeply satisfying relationship, is so very possible with help. And sooooo worth the work and money!! It is a type of life insurance … Quality of Life Insurance … for you and your family.  If I could, I would send all young couples to our Passion for Life Retreat, just to give them the tools they need to build the marriage they so desperately want but have no clue how to have. Do you know how much tragedy we could avoid and how much joy and stability we could bring? It’s a no brainer.

Passion For Life Couples Intimacy Retreat

The next couples intimacy retreat is September 25-28, 2014 at the beautiful Pan Pacific in Seattle. These retreats transform relationships while spoiling and nourishing you in every way.

Whether demands have taken the spark out of your love life or you are just ready to take your relationship to the next level, this 3 day couples intimacy retreat promises to ignite the flame and bring back the fun.

Like becoming a great musician, becoming a great lover is more than just desire … it’s an ancient spiritual art form. Unfortunately due to culture and traditional religious teaching most of us are unaware of the powerful capacity for healing and sexual pleasure available when sexuality is infused with spirituality. Our delicious experience of sexual desire and sexual expression was given to us on purpose – with the intent that we would experience abundant aspects of what it is to love and touch deeply. We were created to know potent experiences of loving a beloved other. It is our mirror experience into the Creator’s great love for us.

During the Passion 4 Life Intimacy Retreat, couples set time aside to invest in becoming the lovers they were created to be. Over breakfast we uncover the spiritual side of sexuality and unpack all the messages of sexuality that have hindered us. We have lunch together and then spend time in mens and womens groups discussing what it means to apply what we are learning. Private time is allocated each afternoon for couples to practice new ways to enhance sexual and spiritual intimacy through specific sacred touching practices.

While you are rekindling desire, the Pan Pacific will provide the ultimate sensual feast for sight, sound, smell, taste and touch!! The hotel is beautiful and sits at the heart of the newest vibrant Seattle neighborhood. Sensual nourishment is one of the things the Pan Pacific does best – the rooms are elegant with two person tubs, ipod docs for your favorite music, and beds with sheets that are luxurious. The food for the opening and closing receptions and breakfast and lunch each day will be made by John Howie’s Seastar Restaurant adjacent to the hotel. Delicious doesn’t even begin to describe it! And if you have a hankering for more chocolate or a container of fresh raspberries … Whole Foods is on the bottom floor!

This retreat gives couple’s what is needed to build a marriage that thrives in today’s stressful culture.  This is the best marriage insurance you can buy – bar none!!  A year of therapy will run you $7200, a disconnected marriage, much more. Don’t let the slow slide of a fading connection and growing disillusionment catch you by surprise! This 3 day retreat promises to nourish and restore you, your relationship and your sexual intimacy and is $1995.00. This covers all training material, the intimacy program, opening and closing receptions and breakfast and lunch each day. Rooms are booked separately directly with the hotel and are being offered at $179/night (regularly $280-$350/night). Registration is open to 8 couples and closes when full.

Come experience what you and your beloved were created for – and enter an amazing new world where love, sex and intimacy flourish.

For more information

To Register

What couple’s are saying -

This retreat did a wonderful job of showing me what’s been missing in my view of intimacy and sexuality. It’s put our marriage on an upward trajectory and brought back some of that “honeymoon” feeling for us.          Shane, Married 19 yrs

This retreat is something I wish I had done 20 years ago. The things you will learn about yourself, about your spouse, about your marriage, about intimacy, about God will blow you away and change your life for the better forever. Go!             Angie

This retreat changed our marriage and I don’t just mean our sex life. Truly, the way we interact with each other will never be the same.             Sarah, Married 4 years

This was the best time and money I have ever spent on a vacation. We all like to get a good return on our investment. I can honestly say the lifelong return on this investment cannot be beat.             Zack

This is an opportunity to listen, share and learn how to love and be loved and be more connected in your relationship. It’s something every couple should learn so their marriage can be all that it can be.             Terry, Married 31 yrs

This retreat has left me forever changed, in every way. Not only is my marriage better, but I feel like I’m a better woman, a better mom, a better person.          Angela, Married 19 yrs

This is absolutely an investment that warrants consideration given how influential the connection with your partner is to personal well-being, happiness, fulfillment, and hope in life. If you value these things, and you find yourself lacking, then this is an opportunity to get positive, long-lasting results in a short period of time.            Joe, Married 6 years

You can’t put a price on your marriage. Seriously, for our situation this was not financially easy. However, in the end it was worth every penny!                  Amanda

The weekend provides an opportunity to focus on each other in ways we rarely do, and to view the gift of sexuality in a powerfully healthy way.                Bill, Married 40 yrs

This retreat is not to be missed if you seek to take your relationship to a new deeper level of connection, communication, and spirituality.              Luke, Married 15 years

I have learned to be intentional to set time aside – time for love-making (not just intercourse) – where we prepare our hearts and minds for that time together. Within that time we are spontaneous and enjoy the moment wherever it leads us.         Leslie, Married 30 years

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We Are and Have Always Been One with God


I love the idea in this quote.  What if we really believed this … how would we practice silence differently? How would we practice community differently?  Would we treat our selves and others with more love … more grace … more reverence?

“Union with God is not something we acquire by technique but the grounding truth of our lives that engenders the very search for God. Because God is the ground of our being, the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent. The fact that most of us experience throughout most of our lives a sense of separation is the great illusion that we are caught up in; it is the human condition. The sense of separation from God is real, but the meeting of stillness reveals that this perceived separation does not have the last word. This illusion of separation is generated by the mind and is sustained by the riveting of our attention to the interior soap opera, the constant chatter of the cocktail party going on in our heads. For most of us this is what normal is, and we are good at coming up with ways of coping with this perceived separation (our consumer-driven entertainment culture takes care of much of it). But some of us are not so good at coping, so we drink ourselves into oblivion or cut or burn ourselves ‘so that the pain will be in a different place and on the outside.’

The grace of salvation, the grace of Christian wholeness that flowers in silence, dispels this illusion of separation. For when the mind is brought to stillness, and all our strategies of acquisition have dropped, a deeper truth presents itself: we are and have always been one with God and we are all one in God,” – Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land.

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The Erotic is NOT the Pornographic!


The subject said: The Erotic as Power

The email read: “You will love this.”

My dear friend Jim, who knows my passion and commitment for people to discover what culture has failed to teach them about their capacity for intimacy and their erotic potential, sent to me a reading by Activist and Poet, Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) of her essay The Uses of the Erotic.  As I listened, I felt like I was drinking a fine liqueur … words pure, true, sweet, sensual … deep in resonance and deliciously satiating.  After I listened and read the text a couple of times, then mused about it for a day or two and let it linger on my mind … I kept coming back to this sense that within was a powerful life invitation. To live into the erotic was to risk the vulnerability of honest deep loving engagement with life – what is most meaningful and imperative.  It was at the heart the risk of being seen, known and loved (or rejected) and seeing and knowing others.  It was the risk of speaking one’s truth, living one’s truth, standing up for the oppressed, casting light into darkness, all at the risk of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, rejected, crucified.  It brought me back to God.  I began to imagine God saying “YES!!, THIS is what I have been wanting you to understand about how deeply I love you – body, mind, soul and spirit.  Erotically, powerfully, fully … and if you can let yourself know this, believe this, you will know a level of passionate investment in your life and the lives of others that will inspire and light your path.  It will be filled with My love for you, My breath, My inspiration, My erotic power … you will know how beloved you are to Me, and that love will set you free. Live in that love and be free from all that binds you.” 

The inherent paradox in living an erotic life, and why the psuedo-erotic of the pornographic is so appealing, is to love purposefully, to feel deeply, to live meaningfully, to act boldly is to risk deep pain every day.  It is a way of life that takes courage, conviction, transparency and community. It is the full continuum of the human experience where nothing is spared. It is a life that ‘takes guts’ and thus is far too often the road less traveled. But I believe … when we are all on our death beds … it is in the end, a life without regrets … a life well lived!

Here is the text of Audre’s talk.  I emphasized some of what moved me.  Linger long … let yourself marinate in these words.  What moves you?

Audre Lorde

The Uses of the Erotic

“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.

We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.

It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power.

As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters.

But the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.

The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society is to encourage excellence. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.

This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.

The aim of each thing which we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible. Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision – a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.
Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. And the lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfactions of our work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do. For instance, how often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult?

The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need – the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.

As women, we need to examine the ways in which our world can be truly different. I am speaking here of the necessity for reassessing the quality of all the aspects of our lives and of our work, and of how we move toward and through them.

The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspectsborn of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the life-force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.

There are frequent attempts to equate pornography and eroticism, two diametrically opposed uses of the sexual. Because of these attempts, it has become fashionable to separate the spiritual (psychic and emotional) from the political, to see them as contradictory or antithetical. “What do you mean, a poetic revolutionary, a meditating gunrunner?” In the same way, we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic – the sensual – those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings.

Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase, “It feels right to me,” acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding is a handmaiden which can only wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born. The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.

Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy, in the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, harkening to its deepest rhythms so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, or examining an idea.

That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.

This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.

During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But, once recognized, those which do not enhance our future lose their power and can be altered. The fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our own oppression as women.

When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives only rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual’s. But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering, and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.

In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.

And yes, there is a hierarchy. There is a difference between painting a black fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.

This brings me to the last consideration of the erotic. To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a Kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without consent of the used is abuse.

In order to be utilized, our erotic feelings must be recognized. The need for sharing deep feeling is a human need. But within the european-american tradition, this need is satisfied by certain proscribed erotic comings-together. These occasions are almost always characterized by a simultaneous looking away, a pretense of calling them something else, whether a religion, a fit, mob violence, or even playing doctor. And this misnaming of the need and the deed give rise to that distortion which results in pornography and obscenity – the abuse of feeling.

When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying, rather than make connection with our similarities and our differences. To refuse to be able that might seem, is to deny a large part of the experience, and to allow ourselves to be reduced to the pornographic, the abused, and the absurd.”

Ellen Page giving a powerful example of the erotic

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Why Go To An Intimacy Retreat? A Man’s Perspective

A man’s viewpoint on deep and abiding love can be a rare find … and I believe, when found … a valuable opinion.  It is not rare, because it is an uncommon occurrence, but rather men’s words are not patiently sought. We so often in culture describe men as only wanting sex and women as only wanting love and forget that BOTH MEN AND WOMEN are hard-wired for love and to express that love with and through their bodies and hearts … meaningful loving pleasurable sexual touch.  In culture we relegate mountains of space to hear about men’s sexual want and women’s emotional want, while simultaneously shaming men for their longing for emotional connection and women for their sexual hunger. Yet in men and women, passionate longing for being erotically known in body, mind, soul and spirit is a hunger deeply imbedded in both.  We may at times express that hunger differently, but the desire weaves its way intimately throughout both our lives. Unfortunately both culture and the church have long sold a disembodied type of love or an unhooked-heart type of sex. For example, in a popular Christian marriage book called Love and Respect, chapter 21, the sex chapter, puts this story out as an example of what women might want to aspire to in marriage – see if you can hear how sex has been disembodied from emotional connection:

“She decided to minister to her husband sexually, not because she particularly wanted to, but because she wanted to do it as unto Jesus Christ.  She didn’t have the need for sex. It wasn’t within her , but she realized that his was her husband’s need, and the Lord had spoken to her about meeting his need first.” 

This kind of sex is seen as an arousal cycle that needs to be satisfied and a duty or transaction that someone performs on another. This kind of thinking separates erotic love from pleasurable sexual touch and it denies the longing inside both men and women to be seen, known, and loved by their lover with and through their eyes, hearts and every inch of skin. Our bodies, every inch of them, is our heart’s symphony used to express the music of love for and with our beloved.  How our toes curl inside the calf of our lover.  How we nuzzle our chin inside their neck.  Each and every unique movement of our body that speaks love is an act of love-making if and when it brings more pleasure and more connection to our relationship.  This is love-making. Real lovemaking is so much more than holes and poles; orgasms and ejaculations; arousal cycles.  If this were not so, then it would not be possible for intercourse to be an awful experience – where love is NOT made.  Yet we all know this unfortunately IS possible – and most people have experienced this at least once.  Both inside and outside of marriage.

REAL lovemaking is never a transaction any more than a symphony is a slot machine. Couples who attend our Passion For Life Intimacy Retreats come to shed some of the unhelpful messages they have gathered from living in American culture while simultaneously learning how to craft a love making marriage.  As they do, they find their way home to their love and to each other. They feel seen, heard, known, loved, with their body, mind, soul and spirit. They learn to dance again, inside their love.  And are reminded what it is to truly make love with their whole bodies – awake and alive.

Listen to these sweet and wise words from this beloved husband about his retreat experience  -

“Great sex and intimacy within marriage isn’t magic.  If you desire something better, all it takes are simple ingredients of time, intentionality, honesty, empathy and openness.  Yet it is often hard to get to a consistent leveling of expectations or build enough momentum to get over the hurdles that keep you where you’ve been for the last however-many years.  It’s not that you don’t aspire to a deeper intimacy for your sex life, it’s that you’re not quite sure how to go about getting there.  And if one of you is ready, how do you get the other to come along for the ride?

You could decide that all you need is a bit more intentionality.  You might schedule a weekend away – without the kids, and plan to spend time together, reconnect, make love a few times, and bring it all back with you in hopes it won’t fade.  And that sometimes works.  But if you ARE interested in planning that weekend, I’d strongly suggest you let Dr. Tina Sellers be your travel guide.  A weekend at Tina’s retreat took us to places we couldn’t have gotten without someone carefully facilitating our journey.  This isn’t just time for love-making.  It’s learning how to care for the most intimate relationship you have.  It’s reconstructing how you thought you had built intimacy into your marriage.

I came away from the weekend more deeply in love with my wife than I had ever been.  I better understood how she needs to be loved.  How to make her feel safe.  Let go.  Breathe.  Feel wonderful.  I also had the feeling that we were finally on the same page, able to look together from a more unified viewpoint at areas of healthy and unhealthy sexuality.  And more than anything, the unhealthy made room for the healthy.  We could have gone somewhere to be alone for the weekend, but instead we ended up with a new way of thinking.  After 10 years of marriage, it gave us a new spark.  We had something special again, longing for each other when we were apart.  Excited about each other.  So, so happy to be married.  I loved it.”

The Next Retreat is September 25 – 28, 2014 and is open to 8 couples.  If you’d like this level of intimacy reboot – get more info or register here.  Registration will close July 15 or when all spots are filled.  Make this the year that you fell even more in love!

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The 7 Elements of Potent Passion – The Anatomy of Intimacy

If life and the soul are sacred the human body is sacred;

Leaves of Grass                                         Walt Whitman

Photo by Steve Adams

Photo by Steve Adams

A New Sexual Paradigm

Much of what I write about is organized in a completely new sexual paradigm from that of the predominant western/religious and cultural narrative. The goal and purpose of  nourishing intimacy is not centered on particular sexual behaviors, but rather on deep satiating sexual connection.  Religion, which only talks about when not to and when to have intercourse, seems to suggest that if a couple has intercourse regularly they will have a satisfying sexual life.  On the other hand, the message in culture would have you believe that sex should happen spontaneously and wildly – no planning, no barriers, no attending to the relationship.  Yet it doesn’t take long in a committed relationship before you realize that everything seems to be affecting your sex life … work, kids, sleep, stress … even tomorrow’s calendar.

God gave us a powerful paradox at the heart of our most important relationships.  Monogamy can be both incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding.  Same with parenting. It is what Jon Kabat-Zin calls the full catastrophe of living.  God wants us to be both blessed and refined by these relationships.  Marriage and parenting will be your greatest teachers or the bain of your existence – you get to decide.  A friend once said, “If you want to serve God, don’t get married.  But if you want to love more like God, live in a committed partnership.”  For us to experience more of what is rewarding in our marriage and with our children, we must attend to the core elements that build and sustain those relationships.  Like keeping a body healthy or a garden beautiful – there are key elements in daily life that sustain health.  Unless we are in the midst of an illness, we often are not aware of these elements – but the health and vitality of any committed relationship rests here.  This will give you an opportunity to review how strong and sure these elements are in your relationship.  While early on in relationship it will be the chemical attraction that will reign supreme – ultimately it is the health of these relationship elements that provide the structure to build a durable erotic relationship that can stand the test of time.

The Seven Elements in the Anatomy of Intimacy

Relationships are complex with committed partnership taking top billing.  It is the work of the soul.  Living together through all kinds of weather, seeing each other in all our color and texture, facing the effect of our reactivity and fear, merging our hearts and our bodies in the mystery of God’s erotic love … this is the stuff of courage and vulnerability.  It is also the stuff of deep emotional saturation, connection and grounding.  It’s the convergence zone of all aspects of love, all aspects of being human, all within the presence of a God who wants to join our communion.  A Jewish friend of mine once told me a phrase her Rabbi said in regards to marriage – “First you choose well and then you make that choice work.”  Both the art of choosing well and the art of allowing a marriage to refine you are complex processes that do not receive their needed attention.  Both require a good measure of knowing and accepting one’s self, an ability to see and love an imperfect other and a willingness to sit in the complexity of a life together allowing wisdom and compassion to grow.  Yet in our culture it is as if choosing a partner and living in a marriage are purely emotional processes.  They just happen.  All you need is ample amounts of passion and a flood of delicious brain chemicals and POOF you have a good choice and a good marriage.  It doesn’t take long to realize infatuation, while initially electric, is not enough.  This complex enterprise of building a life with someone may require more grace and wisdom than most other human relationships. It also is the one place where we are invited into the ecstatic and risky Holy of Holies – to experience the kiln of maturation and a quality of ecstasy that can only be found there. The ‘urge to merge’ brain chemicals that are released in the initial stage of a relationship will disappear according to research, usually within four years.  How well you give and receive love will ultimately determine the quality of a relationship.

These following ideas come from the work of Lana Holstein, MD and David Taylor, MD. I refer to their model with many couples who struggle with intimacy.  Each of the seven dimensions of their model are placed on a continuum of positive, negative and a quality that lies between – what I call ‘slack-tide’.  Placing each dimension on a continuum helps us see more of the complexity of each area and allows us to think through our relationship in more detail.  I’d like for you to review these seven dimensions, think over your relationship and talk together about your thoughts. How are you doing building on these foundations?; Where have each of you done well?; Where have you slipped up?; Are there any places where you blame your partner instead of focusing on what you can do better?; What do you want to be more conscious of everyday in order to more intentionally strengthen these elements?; Is there any place where you need help or professional support?

The Element of the Body

The physical body is the embodiment of the heart/mind/core of us.  Just as it did with Adam and Eve, life begins with God’s indwelling first breath of life and ends with our last breath.  In between we are in communion with our body and with the breath of life flowing through us. In a culture like ours this is what I call the obvious dimension.  Sexuality and the body have been tightly linked as we’ve seen for centuries.  While more than genitals are needed for a dynamic sacred sexual relationship, the body, every inch of it, is our vessel of sensual erotic love. On the continuum we have a healthy body on the positive pole, an ill body on the negative pole and ignorance, inattention and silence in the slack-tide.

Health and well-being    Ignorance, inattention, silence    Illness

+    (positive)                    (slack-tide)                   –  (negative)

The Element of Sensuality

The sensual dimension of relationship and lovemaking is pleasure.  We are creatures who love pleasure and this is often what drives us toward sexual touch.  Part of the reason pleasure is so powerful for us is it dances on all 5 of our senses – sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.  Whether we are aware of it or not we are constantly taking in the data around us on all of these senses.  Have you ever had an intense experience and been able to remember in fine detail of what you saw, what you heard, what smells were in the air, etc?  Or have you ever had a smell or a song jump out at you while you were going about your business as memories flooded in from a distant time?  This is because not only are we absorbing sensation on all of our senses but we also log memory on all of our senses.  We were created sensual from the inside out, and pleasure is what our senses most love.

All senses awake and attending           numbness        pain – emotional or physical

+                                                                                   -

On the positive end of the Sensuality continuum we see people who have practiced noticing everyday pleasure and have cultivated a slow enough pace to soak in that sweet moment.  It is this idea that inspires quotes like, “stop and smell the roses”.   The negative pole of sensuality is pain – physical or emotional.  Pain can ruin the sexual encounter and it can melt all desire.  It may be simple pain, physical pain, temporary or avoidable.  Emotional pain on the other hand can be all encompassing and can be more challenging to deal with.  I see emotional pain when there is a painful unresolved issue in the relationship, when there is grief, and when a person has experienced some form of sexual trauma and a part of the body holds the memory and reactivity of the assault.  It’s important to remember that wounds of the heart and body can heal and professionals are available to facilitate that healing.  Don’t be afraid to ask – you deserve to be out of pain and to experience the full measure of pleasure your senses can bring you.

In the middle of the continuum – in the slack-tide – we have numbness – a lack of awareness of the sensations of the body.  This numbness can occur when someone has an emotional wound and they have shut off their awareness of what is going on.  Perhaps they are protecting themselves from fear, pain or vulnerability.  But more commonly numbness is being off somewhere in your head during a sexual encounter.  While your body may be having sex, you, your presence and attention, are not really there.  This blocks the flow of connection. The way out of numbness is to begin to awaken yourself to sensory pleasure and awaken yourself to love – notice and enjoy, talk and adapt, repeat … notice and enjoy, talk and adapt, on and on, until you are fully awake to your life, your environment, your lover and all that is wonderful in your lovemaking.

The Element of Desire

Desire is a dimension that we often think of when we think of sex.  This is the drive, the passion, the longing, the aching, the excitement, the attraction, the wanting. It is the core of God’s life-force or breath within us.  It is the Song of Songs.  This is where the electricity of erotic sexuality lives.

Attraction, passion, sexual life force         Indifference         Depression

+                                                                                  -

The positive end of the desire continuum locates in two places.  First is the sense within oneself that “I am a passionate, vital and sexual woman/man. God created me with this essential energy.”  This shows itself in someone who is filled with levity, who is passionate and present in their encounters with others, they are known as loving and full of life.  They carry themselves tall and seem comfortable in their skin.  The other place desire locates is in a relationship with a lover – your chosen one.  The expression of desire for one’s partner is dependent on the first aspect – feeling passion and desire within oneself. If someone does not see themselves as passionate and desirable than their partner will not convince them.  Their flat desire energy will emanate and they will likely project this emptiness on their partner – seeing their partner as less than desirable. This lack of desire will bring a kind of emptiness to the sexual encounter. This can be confusing since most people will describe amazing sparks at the beginning of their relationship.  If we do not first see ourselves as desirable and loved passionately by our Creator and learn to live into that reality, the passion at the beginning of the relationship will eventually fall flat.  In order for your desire to dance with the desire of your partner and grow to encase you both, you need to come to the encounter having made peace with the part of you that is sexual, hot, sultry, seductive and longing to be ecstatically, erotically alive. For many, beliefs from the past may be subtly blocking the flow of desire.  You were not created to be afraid or victimized by desire.  You have the power to decide where, when and how to act on desire in a way that honors what you most value and believe.  You decide. It is up to you.

On the negative end of the desire foundation is sexual depression.  This can be experienced differently by men and women.  For women, exhaustion, anger and fear can often be what zaps her sexual desire.  This is one of the important reasons women need to take time to renew, restore and process through issues of frustration.  It is critical for women to take responsibility for their physical, emotional and spiritual health if they want to keep feeling their passion and sexual desire.  When women put everyone else in front of them, they get exhausted, angry and afraid … and passion dries to a slow trickle.  Women need to develop a clear and strong voice about what they need to remain vital and engaged in life.  She will need to be listened to and she will need to act on these aspects of renewal.  For more reinforcement on these ideas, I would encourage you to listen to podcasts by Alison Armstrong.  She has powerful ways of describing the gender tendencies of men and women that often play into patterns that affect their experience of connection.  Understanding differences and learning from each other is a more productive approach than trying to change each other or giving up on each other.

For men, sexual desire can be squelched in humiliation (at work or sexually) or financial loss.  Here his power, vitality and sense of importance are deflated.  His mojo can drain away.  While men can learn to see setbacks as a condition of life not a reflection of self, they also need people they love and respect to remain constant and true in their love, admiration and belief in them.  Usually what I tend to hear most from couples is a kind of indifference or couched apathy.  It can sound something like, “I don’t have the sex drive she has.”; “I have sex with him when I know it has been too long and he is starting to pull away.”  Dancing around blocked desire, or pretending that it is not there or not a big deal, will continue to erode love, trust and passion … and kill the opportunity for an ecstatic intimate sex life.

 The Element of the Heart

Just as the physical heart is at the core of our body, our emotional heart is the nourishing vibrancy at the core of deeply satiating sex.  Heart is the essential element.  If a couple has many other strengths but does not have a heart connection, the relationship will likely not stand the test of time.  On the other hand if a relationship has a strong heart element there is always hope for renewal. The heart foundation is all about love, and when the heart is open, love is emanated.  The heart is in constant communication with the brain – it is the core of us that modulates and echoes with the brain the thoughts, feelings, conditions of our life. Anais Nin said, “Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”  Just as the physical heart cannot be separated from the symbolic heart, sex separated from love ultimately flat-lines.  To continually have sex without love is to slowly turn off your own oxygen valve.

The open giving and receiving of love. Stingy heart; walls up. Abandonment

+                                                                                       -

At the positive end of the of the heart continuum we have romantic loving experiences of giving and receiving love.  This is demonstrated by romantic gestures – cards, loving texts, romantic dinners and all the other ways that we give to the other with an open heart and desire to nourish the very soul of our lover.  At its deepest level, when the heart foundation is manifested sexually, is the mysterious place where the two become one flesh. Their devotion to each other, their love for each other, their desire for each other, their appreciation for each other and their mutual acknowledgement of God’s communion and ordination of their love, melt into sacred erotic ecstasy.  This is making love – quite literally.  Love is created, made, manifested and expanded in this type of open hearted love-making.  With God and in the image of God within you, you have together brought more love to this world through loving with an open heart.   This is an essential piece of a faith mission.

The negative pole of the heart dimension is abandonment.  We have all experienced abandonment at some time or another – the parent who could not love, the mother that died when you were 12, the junior high friend you trusted who posted your secret on-line, the girlfriend that cheated, the former husband that was abusive.  Whether it is past hurts or new forms of abandonment – unresolved, these wounds can close the heart and make it impenetrable to love – in or out.  A closed heart while posing as a protector, will eventually keep you from receiving the very love needed for healing and recovery.

In the slack-tide of the middle space of the heart dimension is the stingy heart.  This heart is an accountant.  Rather than openly giving love, it is keeping an accounting of who is giving more and who is giving less.  The stingy heart is too busy building walls, to bother opening – and it is easy to diagnose.  It displays itself in comments like, “I never get to go out with my friends, but he does every weekend” or “the last time she wanted to make love was my birthday two months ago” or “she spends more on clothes than I spend on anything” or “the last time I got flowers was before we were married.”  This kind of thinking is a slippery slope.  Especially because as we talked about earlier, we live in a consumer driven culture that helps us focus on what is not working so we can get the new version. Nothing in this accounting or wall building system is actually protective to you or your relationship.  It is only in giving that we will receive.  It is only when both partners have opened their hearts that love can grow.  An open heart loves, forgives, extends grace, empathizes, enjoys and extends itself.  Why?  Because it is good for the heart, good for the relationship and follows in the footsteps of Love.  Is this almost impossible at times in a marriage? Yes! But it is exactly in this near impossible place where we learn the deeper meanings in love.  And where we see how far God’s love extends to reach us in our faults and imperfections.

The Element of Intimacy

It might at first seem odd to separate the Heart Element from the Intimacy Element.  Doesn’t the heart dimension build intimacy?  Yes it can and certainly intimacy strengthens love and love can strengthen intimacy – especially in a committed partnership.  But loving and intimacy are actually two fairly separate things.  For example we can love someone that we don’t know the intimate details about – for example our great aunt, our neighbor, our teacher.  But intimacy is about knowing another and being known by another.  And intimacy is built on trust.  For example, “If I show you my shadow or my fear or my insecurities will you still love me?”  Intimacy is built when we reveal ourselves to each other – the good, the bad and the ugly – and the other remains trustworthy.  They receive what we tell them with grace, respond with compassion and interest and keep an open loving heart. Trusting our lover is critical if we are going to walk into the fullness of our vulnerability, into the risk of loving deeply and explore the limits of erotic ecstasy.  We can only go as deep as we trust our lover – otherwise we are holding back.

Trust – everyday/thoughts & feelings/vows    Withholding   Betrayal

+                                                                                         -

Drs. Holstein and Taylor in their great book Your Long Erotic Weekend, break down trust into three areas that I believe are helpful – and are certainly echoed in my practice.  The first area of trust is in the day to day operations of life; house maintenance, going to the grocery store, picking up the kids, finances.  We need to trust that what we have agreed on or what we have said we will do, will in fact be done unless we hear otherwise.  We want and need to count on our partner in the day to day logistics of life.  The second area is the arena of honesty.  We need to trust our partner to give us their honesty – their honest opinions, thoughts and feelings about our life together. The third area is honoring the vows or promises of the relationship.  Here we count on our partner to hold certain private aspects of our life in confidence and to keep their promises.

On the negative pole of Intimacy we see betrayal.  Betrayal in small ways erodes intimacy and betrayal in big ways – an affair or any secretive intimate relationship – can damage trust to such a degree that restoration is equal to climbing Mt Everest.  It can be done … but the training is long and the climbing is hard. When a person within a couple begins sharing with someone on the outside, private information, private thoughts and feelings or private behaviors that have been agreed are sacred within the marriage, and then keeps these transgressions a secret from their beloved, the slippery slope into betrayal has begun. The intense damage of an affair usually requires professional support if there is to be hope of recovery from the pain and disillusionment – for both parties and for the relationship.  A strong heart connection is critical for hope of reconciliation and restoration.

So if trust is at the positive pole and betrayal is at the negative pole, then in the slack-tide in between we have withholding.  When couples stop sharing their life or their truth with each other an insidious slide toward distance and distrust can begin.  As couples keep more and more of their life tucked away from the intimacy of knowing and being known, distance grows and eventually strangers emerge. Withholding can be a sneaky companion.  It can easily begin with an argument where feelings are hurt and anger is present.  A person tucks their hurt feelings and anger inside, closes the heart and stops speaking what is true.  For intimacy to be nurtured we have to be willing to courageously speak our truth, the whole truth.  We must hold on to ourselves and stand in the fire of misunderstanding and pain until we can find our way out together united.

The Element of the Aesthetic

The Aesthetic element opens us to the deep pleasure that comes from beauty.  Plato spoke of eros as the coming together in beauty of body and soul.  This is deep beauty – not the surface beauty we so often sell.  It is the beauty that both takes our breath away and deeply roots us.  For example have you ever been moved by a sunset, a landscape, the laughter of a child, a musical piece and felt in your bones an awe in the witness of this beauty?  This is the beauty that is within you and encompasses all of you.  It is the core beauty found in the presence of love.  It is the beauty of your beloved – the beauty that is punctuated when your love is stirred.

In sacred lovemaking the foundation of the Aesthetic on the positive pole opens us to all the beauty that is around, within and beyond us.  It invites us to delight in the beauty in the creation of our expressions of love – in the making of love – and in the nourishment of gratefulness.

Beauty–gratitude & delight        Apathy         Judgment/Shame

+                                                                          -

On the negative pole we experience judgment and shame which place a condemning eye on us and on our partner.  It preoccupies our eyes and senses on what is condemned and eclipses the dance of beauty that is happening all around us.  God dances in this beauty. There is no delight or gratefulness that can be felt or nourished in a landscape of shame and judgment.  Remember what Henri Nouwen said?  “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved”.  Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

In the slack tide of the aesthetic foundation is apathy.  The word apathy comes from the Greek meaning absence of passion.  In modern times it is considered a state of indifference – without concern or motivation.  Apathy is a quiet emotion, but when seen at the center of a relationship, it is an urgent warning sign.

The Element of the Ecstatic

The seventh and final element of Sacred Intimacy is the Ecstatic Element.  In this dimension we have moved from our beginnings in the body and sensation, through the core emotional qualities of intimacy into the spiritual dimensions of sacred love.

Beloved Communion                  Arousal as urge               Cynicism

+                                                                                       -

If we want to expand our sexual lovemaking experience into a deeply spiritual encounter, into an intimate connection with God and our beloved – we first must believe this is possible.  Many people have had at least one sexual experience that felt deeply spiritual.  Usually people believe this was a wonderful mysterious surprise and have no idea how to increase the likelihood of more of these experiences. It is expanding our sexual communion to this dimension where we begin to experience the ecstatic dimensions of sexuality.  However it is the belief in spiritual sexual communion and the commitment, preparation and spiritual discipline of growing your sacred love that can blend together all seven dimensions and usher in many more sacred sexual encounters.  Each dimension enhances and expands the other creating moments of lovemaking that usher you into luminous moments with each other and the transcendent.  Akin to finding yourself in the realm of the sacred or feeling a touch of Divine tender love, no words will be adequate to describe your experience. It is simply awe … some!

On the negative end of the ecstatic pole there is the belief that sexual desire and arousal are simply animal instincts to be satisfied as needed or worse are profane, disgusting, wrong or worldly – definitely not heavenly. Both of these ideas share the belief that sexual desire and sexual expression is a human instinct and thus unrelated to the emotional, spiritual, their beloved or their faith.  For those raised in conservative religious homes, sexually silent and condemning of sexual desire, there may have been years of seeing sexual longing or sexual touch as sinful; something that separated them from God.  Many describe how they could not “flip a switch” when they got married.  A negative cloud hung over sexuality and extended far into married life.  In the slack tide we see the very typical consumer mindset of sex.  This is quid-pro-quo sex.  “I’ll do you, you do me, I’ll have an orgasm, so will you, we’ll both be happy.”  Here again we see a completely body focused sexual exchange.  The heart is left out, the quality of the relationship is left out and all spiritual dimensions of the people and love-making are left out.  This kind of sex is a small sliver of the pleasure and power potential in the gift of sexuality.

Building on your Foundation

Each of the Seven Elements in the Anatomy of Intimacy build on the other and expand the pleasure and connection experience of beloved sex.  The culture and historically the church have focused on the body only.  Couples ask themselves questions like, “How often are we having sex (aka intercourse)?”, or “Did you have an orgasm?”  A wife might say, “I need to give this to my husband.”  What is “this”? Intercourse.  Or a husband might say, “We are not having enough sex.”  What kind of sex?  Intercourse.  What does the church say you should wait to do until marriage?  Intercourse.  The unfortunate by-product of this narrow behavioral view of sex is that we experience only a small portion of the pleasure and connection that is intended.  When sex is focused on the body alone or a sexual behavior alone – desire often burns out – fades.  This view moves us from our natural desire for our lover, to a focus on an act.  As soon as a person goes from being desired by their beloved to being desired for an act … desire fades.  We are not wired to be used for a particular action.  We are wired to be desired and loved … all of us … all at once … just as we are.  Jesus gave us constant examples of sacred ways of loving.  He loved people fully … as they were … faults, gifts and all … and he saw the desire in their heart.  We are called to love and marriage is a powerful life opportunity to practice what this type of loving means every day, in all situations. Love must be made through the ways we touch, speak and treat each other in order for sexuality to stay nourishing and exciting.  For love to be made – these other dimensions need to be involved and practiced.  It is the practice of believing we are beloved – and it is the practice of treating others with love – as beloved. It is a lived practice that is at the heart of Sacred Sex.

Once you begin to intentionally nourish these seven elements of the Anatomy of Intimacy an amazing array of opportunities to enhance your connection with your beloved open up.  Your partnership becomes your beautiful garden of pleasure.  This unlimited potential is what makes marriage a powerful and exciting place to engage the process of personal and spiritual growth. Tend carefully to your garden and deep intimacy will be yours.

Posted in God, intimacy, marriage, Relationships, Sex, Sex Ed, Sex, God, and The Church, sexual health, sexuality, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment