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Issue In Focus: Of Flying Spaghetti Monsters and Inner Goddesses

Do spirituality and sexuality make for good bedfellows? To some people, no, they seem almost antithetical; to some others, the latter may be a way to get to the former. And then there are others who either hold no opinion on this or give the matter very little thought. Perhaps they are the ones that rest most easy.

Spirituality is often confounded with religion, and though it may be a part of religion it is not all of it. In fact, atheists may consider themselves spiritual although they subscribe to no religious belief. So what is spirituality? Put simply, it is the sense of connection with something beyond oneself, a sense that there is more to this life than the quotidian banalities that we entrap ourselves in. It could be evoked through a set of practices (spiritual practices) or come unbidden as when faced with a beautiful sunset, or the sight of a flock of birds flying in precise yet swiftly changing formation. A deep inner knowing that one is part of a greater web. Spirituality does not require a belief in any divinity or the here-after, or the following of any institutionalised rules or customs, as is what most religions demand.

In fact, seeing spirituality and sexuality as being at odds with each other may stem from conflating spirituality with religion. Or from seeing matters of the spirit needing to be distinctly different from matters of the body. This comes from the idea that the body is different in the sense of being apart, rather than that it is part of a composite of body, mind, heart, and spirit. We crudely separate this composite, citing science and rationality, and then, quite ironically, fall prey to unscientific and irrational beliefs about sexuality. There are practices of asceticism that view any sensual pleasure (including sex) as being an impediment to spiritual growth as there are practices in many religions that forbid sexual activity during certain periods.

And then, if we follow the pendulum as it swings, we see at the opposite end New Age beliefs about ‘sacred sexuality’ and ‘spiritual sex’ based on half-understood ideas of Tantra. Don’t get me wrong, I am not decrying the philosophy or practices of Tantra, but yes, I am denouncing how it has become known to people, especially people in the so-called western hemisphere, only as ‘tantric sex’, a sort of magical means to have endless multiple orgasms. For example, this Cosmopolitan article, one of many of the same kind that can be found online, begins, “the only thing anyone knows about tantric sex is that Sting does it and it lasts for hours”, and then goes on to explain a few basics and ends with some how-to tips. In fact, if you type ‘tantric sex’ into Google you will get 64,000,000 results! And, maybe by the time you read this article, the numbers will have gone up.

‘Spiritual sex’ has spawned a huge market that now, fashionably, goes beyond binaries and includes people of all genders and tastes. It speaks the language of inclusion, liberation, diversity and joy. All very uplifting, but one wonders how much of it is motivated by the lure of big bucks. A quick search reveals that in general though, the gender binary has not vanished and the market seems to cater largely to women. There’s some research that needs to be done on that: is it that women want more connection, or are more open, or just more desperate and think that the answers (and orgasms) lie in releasing their Inner Goddesses by using crystal dildos and yoni eggs? There’s a lot of woo-woo out there, and a gullible public lapping it all up, while a few simple Kegel’s exercises may be just what is needed. But men, don’t feel left out; you can opt for a lingam massage, a fancy name for a well-executed hand-job. What’s the need to enroll in a course online or in exotic locations on so-called tantric sex (in New Age packaging) that we assume, based on what we read in online adverts, will tell you to relax, breathe slowly, gaze into your partner’s eyes, focus on what is happening in the moment without waiting or frenetically pushing for the big O, when that is what sensitivity to yourself and your partner, and a wee bit of sexual experience tell you to do?

Now moving from these extreme points more to the middle, what, if any, is the connection between sexuality and spirituality? Both, at some level, are about exactly that: connection. In the case of the former, a connection with oneself and a connection with another person. In the case of the latter, a connection with oneself in relation to something beyond oneself,  be it in the form of awe at the mysterious workings of Life, the Universe, the Source, the Void (call it what you like), or a love and sense of community with all living beings, including the neighbour who sometimes is an irritant. A sense of expansion can be evoked by an orgasm, meditation, a massage or a simple act of kindness. A feeling that we are ‘more than’ can be evoked through sex or a spiritual experience (or a glass of good wine, for that matter). When people say, “The sex was so good, it was like a spiritual experience” perhaps, they mean all of the above, i.e., they felt connected within themselves and with their partner(s), a sense of expansion, and ‘more than’ how they usually feel.

Sexuality is about more than sex – it is also about one’s body, sexual attraction, desire, sexual orientation, how one feels about oneself, one’s values, and relationships, among other aspects. Some of these, for instance, values, or how one conducts oneself in relationships, or one’s sexual wellbeing, may be seen more easily to be linked with spirituality, while others like the body may not seem to have anything to do with it. But even taking care of one’s body with love and nourishing it can be a spiritual act. And, supposedly, the spirit resides in the body, right?

Spirituality and sexuality (for most people, if they are not asexual or voluntarily celibate, either of which is their right to be) are both about union. And they are both about deeply personal and intimate aspects of oneself. Some people find that religion nurtures their spirituality. It gives them solace, a sense of community, a feeling of belonging and a faith that all is and will be well. Religion can be a means of achieving the union that believers and mystics seek with what they may call Reality (or god by any name), and indeed many have spoken of these moments of religious/spiritual ecstasy in sensuous and even romantic/sexual language, across Bhakti, Christian and Sufi traditions, to name just a few. But religion, the more mundane sort, bereft of these ecstatic moments, the sort that prescribes and proscribes what is to be regarded as sacred and what profane, may have done both spirituality and sexuality a great disservice.

To the rescue comes Pastafarianism. The word is a combination of Pasta and Rastafarianism – a ‘religion’ officially known as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM), in which the Creator is also referred to as His Noodly Appendage, whose recommended headgear is a colander (yes, the utensil used to strain pasta), and all prayers end with R’amen. You can see where this is going. Well, the FSM has as much right to exist as any other religion, especially given that its values are those of tolerance, peacefulness and openness. Instead of commandments they have The Eight Condiments, of which one is “I’d Really Rather You Didn’t Use My Existence As A Means To Oppress, Subjugate, Punish, Eviscerate, And/Or, You Know, Be Mean To Others.” This sort of playful humorous approach, to my mind, is liberating for both sexuality and spirituality.

At their very best, both sexuality and spirituality, singly or together, can help free us and facilitate a process of our being the happiest, most joyful and connected versions of ourselves. And sadly, at their worst, and especially when married to each other and entangled with social and religious taboos, they can sweep us down into a spiral of guilt, shame, fear, self-loathing and bigotry. Those of us who have been at the receiving end of social disapproval, derision or rejection on account of the sexual choices we have made, may have found that examining our beliefs about our place in the universe gave us the strength to chin up and carry on. Thinking about our beliefs and preferences around sexuality together with our spiritual beliefs helps us navigate the contradictions and confusions that life so generously gifts us in our sexual relationships and our relationship with ourselves. Those of us who work in the field of sexuality may be called upon at times to address rather dreadful issues – sexual violence, injustice, discrimination, child sexual abuse, and so on – that may make it seem that humans are anything but luminous beings. It is also at times like these that taking a spiritual view allows us to tap into, if not a flowing river, then at least a little puddle of compassion for the sorry species that we are capable of being.

Returning to the question with which I began about whether sexuality and spirituality make for good bedfellows, I tend to think that they do. They can both affirm each other, if we allow them to by honouring our desires, feelings and deepest aspirations as well as those of others, all others and not just the people we hold dear. In doing this we serve not only our own interests but also sustain balance, enjoy with awareness, and create expanding possibilities for all people to enjoy sexual wellbeing.

As living beings gifted with both sexuality and spirituality, we have the right to celebrate and enjoy both, if we want to. And so, for the rest of our days, may the Flying Spaghetti Monster keep us in pasta (gluten-free options too) andthe Light of the Inner Goddess, who online research reassures me is not partial to any gender, radiate from within us! R’amen.

Cover Image: Pixabay

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Trained as a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Radhika founded TARSHI in 1996. She has co-edited 'Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and Southeast Asia' (Sage, 2005) andauthored the popular 'Good Times for Everyone: Sexuality Questions, Feminist Answers' (Women Unlimited, 2008).

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