A while back I participated in an interesting project with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. When participants in their Gay Life program were polled about what subjects they wanted to see addressed in workshops, one of the more frequently mentioned topics was “sexuality and spirituality.” I was asked to co-facilitate five of these workshops. I found it a fascinating and rewarding experience. The men who participated came from many backgrounds and traditions. There were Catholics, Protestants Jews, and Muslims, Buddhists and New Age adherents, as well as agnostics and atheists.
None of them came to the groups wondering “Does God hate me because I’m gay?” Those who had come from fundamentalist churches had long ago outgrown and rejected the crude homophobia in these traditions. But many did say that they experienced a split between their spirituality and their sexuality. As we explored these feelings, it began to become apparent that the broader issue was the way Western civilization has traditionally viewed sexuality.
We’re all heirs to the philosophy of classical Greece, particularly of Plato, who imagined a world of spirit fundamentally at odds with the world of matter. In his view, spirit is real, eternal, perfect, and unchanging: matter is unreal, imperfect, and impermanent. Somehow the human spirit has become imprisoned within the body, and the goal of spiritual life is to free it from this entanglement. In order to do this, of course, we have to turn away from any sensual delight in the body. That is why this understanding of spirituality always tends toward asceticism and conflict with sexuality.
One of the many problems with the Platonic view is that it requires us to treat this whole material world, and our own embodied existence, as some kind of colossal error on the part of whatever Power created the world, and that it is our job to correct the error – a view that seems a little arrogant. In any case, nowadays, most intelligent people don’t think they hold these kinds of views. But these ideas are deeply ingrained in our culture, part of the air we breathe, and most of us have been affected by them more than we realize. So, for some in the groups, the idea that their bodies and their sexuality might be vehicles for expressing their spirituality, seemed like a somewhat foreign, if very appealing, idea.
Yet virtually everyone was able to describe experiences in which they intuitively knew that their sexuality and their spirituality were in perfect alignment, even if they couldn’t always put into words how they knew that.
As we explored the issue further, the phrase that seemed to come up most often in describing that alignment was “an open heart.” The men in the groups felt that their sexuality expressed their spirit most fully when it came through an open heart, when it flowed from a kind of joyful, generous openness. This, they felt, was where spiritual life and sexual life harmonized with one another. It is interesting that a traditional goal of spiritual practices has always been to develop qualities of open-heartedness, because the qualities that define an open heart were also seen as the qualities that make for a good sex life. Some of the qualities the men mentioned were faith, not as a belief in any particular doctrine, but as an attitude of openness to life; and interpersonal qualities such as trust, affection, respect, generosity of spirit, gentleness, kindness, and playfulness..
At first glance, the focus on the heart might appear to be an endorsement of the conventional idea that romantic love relationships and “vanilla” sex are the “most spiritual” kind of sexuality, but while there were some in the groups who did hold that view, they were always a distinct minority. Gay men seem to have an almost instinctive respect for the many varieties of sexual expression. In every group participants shared stories of open-hearted sexual experiences of every kind and in every context, with lovers, friends, and strangers. What seemed important was not any particular kind of sexual situation, but the qualities of openness and presence that they were able to bring to the experience.
Maintaining an open heart is an immense challenge for everyone, because even the most fortunate lives contain loss, betrayal, and disappointment, and the heart closes reflexively and more or less automatically in response to the pain in life. But one of the purposes of any life-affirming spirituality is to keep the heart open through the shocks and disappointments that come to all of us. When it succeeds in this task, then, far from being hostile to sex, spiritual life is the friend of our sexuality, and encourages its full development. I was grateful to the men in these workshops for helping me to understand this.