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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sexual Ethics Among Spiritual Leaders

There is a problem with sexual ethics among spiritual leaders from every tradition. Anyone on the inside who would deny it is not fooling themselves, they are outright lying. There is also a good old boys network at work here, in that spiritual leaders are expected to cover for each other and not call each other to accountability. A couple of years ago when I wrote a tongue in cheek piece about
the fact that Evangelical preachers Benny Hinn and Paula White were seen leaving a hotel in Rome hand in hand and strolling down the street, a colleague reminded me of which friends of mine were friends of Benny's. My colleague shouldn't have been surprised when I said I didn't give a damn about who was offended, when a spiritual leader who preaches that old time religion and is married steps out with another woman I am going to call him for the hypocrite he is. Similarly, when anti-gay crusader Bishop Eddie Long was outed for grooming under age male congregants to be his sex partners I called him out both for hypocrisy and clergy sexual abuse. Others did not, preferring to adhere to the good old boys network. I want to be clear that is their choice, not everybody feels called to take the heat and make I no judgment about those who remain silent.

But somebody has to speak out.

We as a nation are conflicted about sexuality. As a basic starting point I would
say that if you are a single person you are free to do whatever you desire sexually as long as the person or persons you are doing it with consent to the activity - which means they have to be legally able to consent. We also need to be profoundly aware that there are certain situations in which people who would otherwise be able to legally consent, cannot. Generally speaking, those over whom we hold power cannot consent to sexual activity with us. That means it's a bad idea for bosses to sleep with their subordinates and absolutely unacceptable for a spiritual teacher to sleep with his students - period, end of discussion, no wiggle room here. While not illegal, it's a really bad idea for a spiritual leader to be less than faithful to their relationship commitments. I'm not arguing for monogamy only - that is my path, but I recognize that some people are called to live in relationships other than monogamous relationships. As long as all parties to the relationship are aware of the boundaries of their relationship, I say more power to them. Of course, those in non-traditional relationships need to be realistic about the fact that some more traditional folks will be critical of their non-traditional relationship and be
prepared to deal with the consequences. Still, a spiritual leader in an open relationship, to cite but one example, needs to not include among their sexual partners those who attend their spiritual center, temple, church, mosque, monastery, or other teaching venue.

It really isn't a very difficult concept, but you wouldn't know if from people's practice. What's especially disturbing is that sexual acting out is evidence of unresolved issues both spiritual and psychological. When we find it among people who are supposed to be qualified to advise us spiritually, is there any wonder our faith is shaken? Who are we to trust now

I'm tired of supposedly mature spiritual leaders trying to lay the responsibility for their actions at the feet of those who object to them. Christianity is not the only place this happens, Buddhism has had more that its share of teachers who have actually convinced the faithful that sleeping with them is a path to enlightenment. In doing so they point to stories of that being the case in Asia in days of old, but of course this is neither Asia nor days of old. You might say that if someone is convinced that they have the ability to enlighten others through sexual contact they have more than a little ego work to do. These problems don't end with Buddhism, either, they extend to every corner of every tradition.

What's the solution? The solution is to educate spiritual consumers around issues of sexual ethics. It's also important that spiritual centers have a copy of their ethics policies on file and available for visitors to examine. We need to educate spiritual consumers to be wary of any center that doesn't have a policy they can inspect. That doesn't mean the policy is hanging on the front door, but it does mean it is available on request. Such policies should not only define acceptable and unacceptable behavior, but should also include an action plan for possible violations of the policy. It's not enough
to say something is wrong, we need to be clear on what steps we will take to protect all parties. The goal is not ensuring conforming to some externally imposed standard of morality, but rather to ensure that nobody is coerced into a relationship against their will.  

In fairness, we also need to do a much better job educating spiritual leaders around self awareness and the tendency of some spiritual consumers to confuse concern for their spiritual development with the desire to be in a relationship. We in the west do such a poor job expressing our feelings, largely because many of us struggle to simply get in touch with our feelings. How can we possibly express what we can't discern? Clearly, there is a lot of work that needs to be done, which means we need to start right now.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

More X-Rated Reflections

A couple of years ago I developed a presentation called "X-Rated Spirituality." You can find it on YouTube here, but unfortunately the video is reversed so the graphics are a bit of a struggle and for that I apologize! The essence of X-Rated Spirituality is that we might describe different paths by using the image of an X with each of the four tips of the "X" representing a different path. It looks like this:

                     Meditation and Contemplative Practice                    Study and Learning
                                 Raja Yoga                                                  Jnana Yoga

                        Devotional Spirituality and Worship                 Active Service
                                 Bhatki Yoga                                            Karma Yoga

The "yoga" terms listed under each point on the "x" are the traditional Hindu descriptions of the four practices. If they don't work for you, you can just ignore them. The important thing here is that most of us have at least dabbled in more than one point of the "x". In fact, you might say that a well rounded spiritual program will include each of the four points even though people will tend to migrate to one or two primary pathways. You may also notice that as we move across the "x" we see practices that provide a certain amount of balance to each other. What's more, I believe we move from point to point throughout our lives depending on our needs and life circumstances. Very few people at ninety years old will be able to do a lot of Karma Yoga, for example, and may choose to spend more time as they age in meditative practice. People who spend all their lives in study but never move from their heads to their hearts become rather one dimensional.

I believe we get into trouble when teachers assert that only one point on the "x" matters, because invariably such a perspective creates imbalance in the individual. It sounds really appealing when someone says "this one thing is all you have to do," but it isn't very realistic that such a narrow view would lead to the well rounded development of anyone. It gets even worse when New Age teachers tell people they don't have to do anything. Mind you, I agree there is nowhere to go and nobody to be and that the path is the goal, but sometimes I hear popular teachings that suggest to everybody that if they just sit there without a practice transformation will occur. If that statement was true, everybody would be fully awake already and the world's problems would be solved already!

Now, in light of all my statements about the importance of balance, I also want to say that you will find some practice that really resonates with you. You should take that and run with it as your primary practice, no matter what anybody says! If somebody says your path isn't appropriate, ignore them. Trust yourself! It's the greatest gift you can give yourself!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Penis Size, Vajazzling, Labiaplasty, and the Comodification of Intimacy

This is an adult post intended for adults, which doesn't rule out sophomoric humor.

In a recent study, women preferred a penis size of six and one half inches in partners in a long term
relationship and a larger penis size in one night stands. This was determined by showing women pictures and offering them model penises from which to select their favorite. I kid you not. How it is, precisely, that one determines penis size prior to the onset of the one night stand remains a mystery to me - though from what I understand people are more forthcoming (you should pardon the pun, but there will be many more) about their genitals these days.

In a different recent study, the average American Caucasian penis has been determined to be five and one half inches long, which means that according to the above study the average man comes up short (I told you there would be more puns). The good news, gentlemen, is that it isn't necessary to retire that undersized pride and joy of yours just yet.

As you might expect, I have several thoughts. Some of them are rather random. My first thought was that this is some kind of karmic retribution for men, back in the day at least, preferring women with larger breasts. If that's the case, it's a kind of delayed karmic retribution because for the last couple decades it would seem that the trend has been for men to prefer anorexic women who have the body of a twelve year old boy. What's more, it's not exactly analogous because there are reliable cosmetic methods to increase breast size and breasts are not genitals. In any event, it's probably fitting that men should now be evaluated by some standard over which they have no control - as women have been for centuries.

The second is that, back when I was your age, the imaginative male lover had more than his penis in his bag of tricks. I don't care what size a man's penis is, if his idea of being an effective lover is just hopping on top and thrusting then there are going to be problems. What's more, many women are not orgasmic from vaginal stimulation alone, so the idea expressed in the article that the ideal penis size leads more easily to orgasm cannot be universally true.

Let's let the penis lay there for a moment...and move to the vagina. Vajazzling, for those not in the know, is decorating the area around the vagina with jewels and glittery bits. It's probably better to make sure your pet bird is securely in its cage before beginning. By the way, the picture to the left is the only vajazzling picture I could find that was suitable for this blog. Most vajazzling occurs a wee bit south of this example.

Then there is labiaplasty, a cosmetic procedure for those who feel their vagina has a few too many miles on it and wish to make it appear young again. In this procedure, the labia minora are reshaped, actually decreased, so that they don't extend beyond the labia majora (the fatty "pads" on either side of the vulva). There is thought that the concern about this is fueled by the prominence of shaving and waxing and the desire to have genitals that appear prepubescent. The risks include scarring, which it seems to me would defeat the whole purpose. There is no functional purpose for the surgery except in extremely rare cases. There has been no research on the long term effects of this procedure, but researchers are suggesting that the impact on childbirth may be the same as that of ritualistic genital mutilation!

I don't claim to be any expert, falling way short of achieving even one percent of Wilt Chamberlain's collection of lifetime lovers, but I haven't lived in a monastery, either, and I have also spent my share of time in men's locker rooms. I can tell you from my experience both that, the preamble to the Constitution notwithstanding, neither all men nor all women are created equal. I can also tell you that, both in my experience and the experience of many people I have discussed this topic with, satisfying sexual experiences have had nothing to do with the particulars of the other person's equipment, if you will. Fatigue, stress, illness, distraction, and even the weather have had a lot more impact on my sexual encounters that a millimeter here or there more or less of labia minora!

What in the world is going on? What's going on is a massive confusion between orgasm, physical appearance, physical pleasure, and intimacy.

I have written in other places about a nurse I used to work with who remarked that penises were quite ugly.
I felt compelled to remind her that the penis was a functional piece not designed to be framed and hung over her sofa. The same is true of the vagina. With the exception of Gay and Lesbian Art Galleries, there simply aren't a lot of penises and vaginas framed and hanging on walls. If what we are trying to do is determine who has the most attractive genitals prior to engaging in sexual intimacy, might I suggest that what we are interested in isn't intimacy at all, but rather calisthenics? What's more, if all one is after is the most powerful physical response possible, there are more than a few mechanical and natural devices that will bring that about, without all the trouble of having to find someone to spend the night, or maybe twenty minutes, in your bedroom!

I believe that the reason we are seeing all of this concentration on the physicality of sexuality is that we have lost the spiritual connection that fuels intimacy. What has replaced it is a lot of nonsense like so-called shamanistic sexuality, tantric sexuality, and just about every article published in the Elephant Journal. Even more absurd are the abstinence only folks, who place so much emphasis on the fable that waiting for marriage guarantees satisfying sexuality that they do nothing but set people up first for frustration and later for disappointment. Is there a spiritual component to sexuality? Absolutely, but not necessarily.

If we are using sexuality to escape something, or to pass the time, or to do anything but foster intimacy we both ignore that there is an exchange of spiritual energy and miss the opportunity for the fullness of spiritual union. Contemporary society seeks to provide the full richness of an intimate sexual relationship, which takes time and commitment to build, in the instant coffee world of hook ups and tape measures - and it simply doesn't work, because it cannot work.

From CDs that promise the deep meditation the Dalai Lama experiences, to drug induced spiritual states, to
jewel encrusted genitals, we have discovered short cuts that may help us reach peak levels of performance and experience but simply cannot keep us there. It's like test driving a high performance automobile every now and then and wondering why you don't own one. No matter what field we are discussing, if you want to consistently achieve high levels of experience you are going to have to do the work necessary to get there and stay there. When it comes to sexuality, that means intimate relationships - there's no avoiding it - and intimacy simply can't be purchased. It has to be developed, it takes time and hard work, and try as we might it doesn't always work out. When it doesn't, it's frustrating and painful - but that doesn't mean these artificial methods of achieving intimacy are going to work. In fact, dabbling in them can create a whole host of expectations that get in the way of real intimacy.

In fact, if you want to develop intimacy in the bedroom you would do well to develop intimacy outside the bedroom first. There is, of course, that early phase in relationships when you can't get enough of one another, but that wears off. I believe the purpose of that initial strong physical attraction is to allow time for heart intimacy to develop. As we share our feelings, beliefs, and attitudes and develop a cache of shared experience, our relationships deepen and heart intimacy develops. It is precisely our willingness to work at that part of our relationships that predicts our deepening physical and sexual intimacy. What's more, as we age and sexual intimacy wanes, it is our heart intimacy that will sustain our relationship through the years. So put away your penis pumps, your Elmer's glue and glitter, and cancel your surgical consult. Have a conversation instead. You may be amazed at what develops!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

If Everything is Impermanent...

If everything is impermanent, if all experiences are essentially fleeting, then the goal is to let go. It makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Somehow, though, we expect our awakening experiences - our glimpses through the fog, if you will - to somehow transmute into a permanent state. In fact, we imagine that enlightenment amounts to living in those states of clarity twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week - but if that happened, could we really function on a day to day basis?

Let me back track for a moment and say that these satori experiences are really not all that uncommon. We all have them from time to time, and spiritual practitioners tend to have them more
frequently than the population at large, but they aren't the exclusive purview of the spiritual practitioner. Athletes, even amateur athletes, have these experiences of being "in the zone" when their performance excels through a period of clearly seeing what needs to happen and being able to do it. While we can certainly debate whether such experiences are life transforming in and of themselves, they are indeed experiences of awakening into our physical selves and our physical potential. On the spiritual plane, similar experiences exist wherein we have periods of seeing clearly, having the answers to our questions appear, of having everything fit together in what suddenly becomes a common sense view. We wonder why we didn't see these things earlier, and revel in the wonder of a universe that makes sense. Eventually, the experience ends and we don't see with that clarity. We can become attached to these experiences and wish they would come back, a strategy that only serves to push them farther away and miss the point of the experience entirely. Why, though, should we expect it to remain? Are not all experiences, even mystical experiences, impermanent?

Moreover, if you have had one of these experiences you may be aware that during them you were not especially in touch with your environment. It would not be a good thing to enter an awakening experience while driving a car, and we can be happy that they don't come upon us unless we are receptive to them, have done more than a little ground work, and are in a place wherein our senses are available to the experience. Sadly, you won't be able to blame your next fender bender on the sudden onset of mystical vision. If what awakening consisted of was inhabiting these states full time, an
awake person would be rendered unable to function in day to day existence. Such an existence would be psychosis, not awakening.

I suspect that a fully awake person operates on a day to day level not much differently than you and I. They see things more clearly than we do, but they aren't lost in the ozone all blissed out and unavailable to family and friends. What distinguishes a fully awake person from you and I is that they fully live in love. Their actions and responses come from love, that love allows them to see the hearts of others more clearly and respond to them in the most helpful way. Are they perfect? I suppose that depends on how you define perfect. I would say that as we become more and more awake we more fully inhabit love. We may never bowl a perfect game, shoot eighteen holes-in-one in a round of golf, or never again get a speeding ticket. The things we do, however, we do more and more in love until we abide fully in love. That's a perfection that transcends all the other nonsense we normally think of as being a part of perfection, and I am coming to see it is what awakening is all about.