If life and the soul are sacred the human body is sacred;
Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman
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.