I don’t think I need to tell you that in a very special and peculiar way, Western man is hung up on sex. The major reason for this is that he has his religious background, quite unique among the religions of the world. I mean specifically Christianity, and in a secondary way, Judaism, insofar as Judaism in Europe and the United States is strongly influenced by Christianity. Christianity is, of all religions in the world, the one uniquely preoccupied with sex, more so than priapism, more so than tantric yoga, more so than any kind of fertility cult that has ever existed on the face of the earth. There has never been a religion in which sexuality was so important.
And either there is a certain very standards by which this can be judged. In popular speech, when you say of a person that he or she is living in sin, you know very well that you do not mean that they are engaged in a business to defraud the public by the sale of badly made bread, or anything in that kind, setting up a check forgery business, no. People who are living in sin are those who have an irregular sexual partnership. In the same way, when you say something is immoral, it pretty much means something sexually irregular. I remember when I was a boy in school, we used to have a preacher who came to us every year, the same man once a year, and he always talked on the subject of drink, gambling, and immorality. I remember the way he rolled it around his tongue, it was very clear what immorality was. And also I might point out that, present company excepted [za wyjątkiem was], the unitarian church being somehow unusual, most churches in America, England, and other parts of the Western world are, frankly, sexual regulation societies. They occasionally get excited about other moral issues, but really not very much. In other words, when you ask what can people get kicked/be thrown out of a church for, that’s supposing you consider important ministers, bishops, priests and so on. They can live in envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness and being perfectly good standing. But the moment anything about their sexual life becomes a little unusual, out you go, and that is about the only thing you can get out for/they can be removed.
You study for example, the Roman Catholic manuals of moral theology, these manuals of moral theology are technical books about sins of all kinds – just exactly what they are, how they are done, how grave they are – mostly for the advice of confessors. They are always arranged according to the Ten Commandments, and when they get to the command “Thou shalt not commit adultery” the volume expands (like this), in fact it occupies two-thirds of the whole book, all the details.
In a very special way, we have got sex on the brain, which is not exactly the right place for it. This needs going into/examination, because it is not as simple as it looks. There are really two roots of the whole problem. One of them is the problem of why sexual pleasure, of all pleasures, as a kind of really supreme pleasure, is singled out for religious people to be particularly afraid of. This is true not only of Christianity. Christianity emphasizes it in a certain way, but in Asian religions also, especially in India, there is a prevailing view that if you want to attain real heights of spirituality, the one thing you must give up is sexuality, in the ordinary sense of genital sexual relationships with man or woman. This reflects an attitude to the physical world, because it is, after all, through sexuality that we have, along with eating, our most fundamental relationship to materiality, to nature, to the physical universe. It is the point at which we can become most attached to the body, to the physical organism, to material life. That is one reason why sexuality/it is problematic.
The other reason why it’s problematic, is more subtle, and is that sexuality is something you cannot get rid of. Do what you may, life is sexual, in the sense for example, that you are either male or female. There are various other gradations, but basically they are all forms of maleness and femaleness. And also, that every one of you is the result of sexual intercourse. This feature of life can be looked at in one of two ways. You can say, on the one hand you can say, that all man’s higher ideals, his spirituality and so forth, are simply repressed sexuality; or on the other hand, you can say that human sexuality is a manifestation, a particular form or expression of what is spiritual, metaphysical, divine, or whatever you want to call it. I hold to the latter view. I do not think that religion is repressed sexuality. I think however that sexuality is just one of the many forms in which, whatever all this is, expresses itself. But you see, if it is something you cannot get rid of and if you realize that indeed a way of life in which sexuality is in some way put down or repressed, is nonetheless an expression of sexuality. Then you come to a view of a religion in which sex is a very special taboo, which is rather unusual. It’s normally said, you see, the Christianity is a religion in which sex is taboo and there is simply no getting around that. I know, up-to-date ministers today think sex is all right. It’s perfectly ok if you are married and you have a mature relationship with a woman, it’s all right. And they kind of damn it with faint praise. But if you read anything in Christian writings prior, shall we say, to approximately 1850, you will find that it is not all right, not at all. It is tolerated between married couples and strictly for the procreation of children, but on the whole, to do without it is best. As Saint Paul put it, it is better to marry than to burn, to burn with the fire of lust and automatically to burn in hell. But always consistently, there is no way of getting from it. In all the writings of the church fathers from Saint Paul himself to Saint Ignatius Loyola to any of the great relatively modern leaders of Catholic spirituality, to Calvin and the great Protestants like John Knox, on the whole sex is sin and sex is dirt.
You can say very simply that this is all bad and something very wrong, but I want to point out that there is another side to all this. There is no way of making a hedge grow like pruning it. There is no way of making sex interesting like repressing it. And as a result of all these centuries of sexual repression and associating it with dirt, the West has developed a peculiar form of eroticism. That is an aspect of this whole problem that I do not think is really very profitable to explore, but I just want to mention in passing that the whole attitude of anti-sexuality in the Christian tradition is not as “anti” as it looks. It is simply a method of making sex prurient and exciting in a kind of dirty way. I suppose it is to be recommended to people who are not feeling very frisky and need to be pepped up.
The other side of the problem is much more interesting. That is to say, the first thing I mentioned, why it is that there has been a problem for human beings about pleasure? We take sexual activity as a supreme pleasure, as a supreme involvement of oneself with the body and the physical world. Why should there be a problem here? Well, the point is simply, isn’t it? That the physical world is transient and impermanent; it falls apart. Bodies that were once strong, smooth, and lovely in use begin to wither and become corrupt and turn at last into skeletons. If you cling on to one of those (bodies) and it suddenly turns into a skeleton in your hand, as it will if you speed up your sense of time a little, you will feel cheated. There has been for centuries a lament about this, that life is so short, and all the beauties of this world fall apart. Therefore, if you are wise you do not set your heart on mortal beauty, but you set your heart on spiritual values that are imperishable. Even Omar Khayyam [Khajam] says:
“The Worldly Hope men set their hearts upon
Turns to ashes – or it prospers; and anon
Like snow upon the desert’s dusty face
Lighting a little hour or two – is gone.”
So do not bet on that horse.
And read any kind of spiritual literature you want to, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, all of them seem to emphasize the importance of detachment from the body, from the physical world, so that you won’t be engulfed in the stream of impermanence. The idea is that, to the degree that you identify yourself with the body and with the pleasures of the body, to that degree you are simply go to be something that is sucked away in the course of transience. Therefore hold yourself aloof, as in for example the advise of many Hindus in the practice of yoga, you are advised to look upon all sensory experiences as something out there, that you simply witness. You, yourself identify yourself with the eternal, spiritual, unchanging self—the witness of all that goes on—but who is no more involved in, say, the smoothness or the color of the mirror is affected by the things which it reflects. Keep your mind like a mirror, pure and clean, free from dust, free from flaws, free from stain, and just reflect everything that goes on but don’t be attached. You will find this all over the place. But it has always seemed to me that this attitude of essential detachment from the physical universe has underlying it/raises the very serious problem. The problem being why a physical universe at all in that case? If God is in some way responsible for the existence of creation, and if this creation is basically a snare, why did He do it?
And because according to some theologies, the physical universe is looked upon as a mistake, as a fall from the divine state, as if something went wrong in the heavenly domain, causing spirits, such as we are, to fall from their highest state and become involved with animal bodies. There is an ancient analogy of man, which runs right through to the present time, that your relationship to your body is that of a rider to a horse. Saint Francis called his body Brother Ass. That you are a rational soul in charge of an animal body. And therefore if you belong to the old fashioned school, you beat it into submission. I suppose said I beat my body into submission. Or if you are a Freudian you treat your horse not with a whip but with lumps of sugar, kindly; but it is still your horse. Even in Freud there is a very strong element of Puritanism. Read Phillip Rieff’s book, on Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. And how he shows that Freud basically thought that sex was degrading, but nevertheless something biologically unavoidable, something terribly necessary, which could not just be swept aside but had to be dealt with. But there is you see that heritage of thinking of ourselves as divided, the ego as the rational soul of spiritual origin and the physical body as the animal component. Therefore, all success in life, spiritual success requires the spiritualization of the animal component, the sublimation of its dirty and strange urges. So that is thoroughly cleaned up. I suppose the ideal sexual relationship of such persons would be held on an operating table under disinfectant sprays.
Of course, it is true that the physical world, its beauty and so on is transient. We are all falling apart in some way or other, especially after we pass the peak of youth. But this has never struck me that is something to gripe about. That the physical world is transient seems to me to be part of its splendor. I can imagine nothing more awful than attaining the age of thirty and suddenly being frozen in that age for always and always. You would become a kind of animated waxworks. And you would discover, as a matter of fact that people who have that physical permanence would feel like plastic. And that is as a matter of fact, what is going to be done about us by technology in order to provide/attained perpetual youth. All the parts of our bodies that decay and fold up are going to be replaced by very skillfully manufactured plastic parts, so that in the end we will be entirely made of very, very sophisticated plastic. And everybody will feel like that, and everybody will be utterly bored with each other, because the very fact that the world is always decaying and always falling away is the same thing as its vitality. Vitality is change. Life is death; it is always falling apart.
There are certain supreme moments at which in the body, we attain superb vitality. And that’s the time make it then. That’s the moment just like when an orchestra is playing, the conductor wants to get a certain group of violinists to come in at a certain moment, and he is conducting and say ‘now make it’ and they all have to do it, right now, you see? That is the whole art of life, to do it at the right time. To do it in time, like you dance or you play in time. In the same way, when it comes to love, sexuality, or, equally so, in all the pleasures of gastronomy, timing is of the essence. And then it’s happened and you’ve had it. But that is not something that one should look upon with regret. It is regrettable only if you don’t know how to take it when it was time.
This is really the essence of what I want to talk about, because to be detached from the world, in the sense that Buddhists and Taoists and Hindus often talk about detachment, does not mean to be non-participative. You can have a sexual life, very rich and full, and yet all the time be detached. By that I do not mean that you just go through it mechanically and have your thoughts elsewhere. I mean a complete participation, but still detached. The difference between the two attitudes is this: On the one hand, there is a way of being so anxious about physical pleasure, so afraid that you won’t make it, that you grab it too hard; that you just have to have that thing, and if you do that you destroy it completely. And therefore after every attempt to get it you feel disappointed, you fell empty, you feel something was lost. And therefore you want it again, you have to keep repeating, repeating, repeating, because you never really got there. This is the hang-up. This is what is meant by attachment to this world, in the evil/negative sense.
But on the other hand, pleasure in its fullness cannot be experienced when one is grasping it. I knew a little girl to whom someone gave a bunny rabbit. She was so delighted with it and so afraid of losing it that taking it home in the car she squeezed it to death with love. Lots of parents do that to their children, a lot of spouses do it to each other. They hold on too hard, and so take the life out of this transient, beautifully fragile thing that life is. To have life and to have its pleasure you must, at the same time, let go of it. Then you can feel perfectly free to have that pleasure in the most gutsy, rollicking, earth-shaking, lip-licking way, with one’s whole being taken over by a kind of undulative, convulsive ripple, which is like the very pulse of life itself. But, this can happen only if you let go, if you are willing to be abandoned.
It is funny that word – abandoned. We speak of people who are dissolute as being abandoned, but we can also use abandoned as a characteristic of a saint. A great spiritual book by a Jesuit father is called Abandonment to Divine Providence. There are people like that, who just are not hung up. They are the poor in spirit, that is to say they spirituality are poor, in the sense they do not cling to any property. They do not carry burdens around. They are free. Well, just that sort of spiritual poverty, that let-go-ness is quite essential for the enjoyment of any kind of pleasure at all, and particularly sexual pleasure.