With the passing of the so-called "sexual revolution," the consensus seems to be that sexuality is no longer the centerpiece of neurosis. "Money is the new sexuality," I've heard people say. "It is the one thing we don't talk about, even in therapy." But in my experience, there is no such thing as a new sexuality. The new one is the same as the old one, tarnished a bit by the assumption that we should be beyond all this by now.
As a psychiatrist to people with spiritual aspirations, I am witness to some of the ways in which spirituality and sexuality interact, not always to either of their benefits. Freud once said that sexuality contained a "divine spark," but his indefatigable promotion of the instinctual components of desire has done much to remove its connection to the sublime. The recent surge of interest in Tantric sexuality has sought to reestablish that lost connection. There is a groundswell of attention to aspects of sexual relations often overlooked in our culture of immediate gratification. In most portrayals of sexual yoga, for example, the man is encouraged to give priority to his partner's arousal rather than his own. Both people are urged to bring pleasurable feelings upward from their genitals to the heart and head, prolonging their intermingling while allowing sexual bliss to course through mind and body. In a reversal of the usual sexual dynamic, men are urged to absorb the female secretionsto drink their blissrather than ejaculating.
In actual practice, most of the popular seminars and literature on Tantric sex seem to be oriented toward helping people over their sexual inhibitions. Men are given something other than their own release to focus on, and women are affirmed in the richness and complexity of their sexual response. Yet there is no denying the changes in attitude that these efforts encourage. A movement is afoot to reclaim the sacred quality of sexual relations, to rescue it from the language of instinct and from the commercial exploitation of Madison Avenue. People want something more from their sexual lives, and they are turning to the East for a reminder of what that might be. In a new book called Darwin's Worms (Basic Books, 2000), the British child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes of Freud's discussions of desire in a way that suggests that Freud knew more of Tantra than we might have suspected.
Phillips retells a story of Freud's from an often overlooked paper called "On Transience." In this vignette, Freud told of walking in the countryside with two friends who were resolutely unmoved by the beauty of all that surrounded them. Freud was puzzled by their failure to open and began to analyze what their problem might be. It was the transience of the physical world that was unnerving his friends, he decided. They were guarding themselves against a feeling of sadness that was an indivisible part of appreciation. Like a lover who has been hurt one too many times, Freud's friends were keeping themselves unapproachable. They were stuck in a state of abbreviated, or interrupted, mourning. Unable to embrace the object of their desire, they retreated to a sullen and unapproachable place.
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