In many religious traditions, desire, especially sexual desire, is best to be avoided or carefully repressed. From Christianity to Buddhism, celibacy is understood as an important aspect of the spiritual path. The Dalai Lama, in a 2008 interview in Nigeria points out that celibacy is a good prescription for a calmer life, with “less ups and downs,” and that “those who marry always have trouble, and in some cases it leads to murder or suicide.” Murder or suicide! Of course that’s true, in some rare cases, but I think the strong statement points to an intuition many of us have about sexual desire—it’s powerful, and can be dangerous.
Behavioural economists Dan Ariely and George Lowenstein were interested in this intuition, so they did a study on how sexual arousal affects rationality and decision-making. Ariely concludes, “Across the board, [the participants] revealed in their unaroused state that they themselves did not know what they were like once aroused. Prevention, protection, conservatism, and morality disappeared completely from the radar screen. They were simply unable to predict the degree to which passion would change them.” When we are in an impassioned state, we are more likely to behave outside of social norms or religiously mandated behavior. Ariely and Lowenstein showed what many of us know intuitively: that sexual desire is intoxicating.
This power, though, can also be used for good. Sex also connects us deeply to another and to the present moment. There’s something about it that’s pure in and of itself. Matt Killingsworth is a researcher on happiness that developed an app called trackyourhappiness.org. He discovered that people were least happy when they were “mind wandering,” thinking about something other than what they were currently doing. This is one of the reasons a long commute can add a lot of stress to your life—it’s the most common place for mind wandering. In activities that are totally absorbing, the mind is not wandering, and people feel happier. The most common place to be totally absorbed was, of course, while having sex.
From some devotional perspectives, sexual energy can be channeled towards connection with the divine. The poet and Islamic scholar Rumi, for example, writes in his steamy poem “Like This”, “If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead, / don’t try to explain the miracle. / Kiss me on the lips. / Like this. Like this.” Sufi mystic and Muslim saint Rabia of Basra writes, “God must get hungry for us; why is He not also / a lover who wants his lovers near?”
Sally Kempton, in her book on the goddesses of Tantra, names Lalita Tripura Sundari the Goddess of Erotic Spirituality. Kempton writes, “Eros is the driving force of life itself, and the erotic is that quality in reality that makes it lively, juicy, and alluring. Cosmic desire brings the universe into being, and the world is, in one sense, an out flowing of the cosmic erotic impulse.” In these various traditions, sexual desire and connection can be an expression of love for another person, for God alone, or the very basis of the existence of the universe itself.
Here in the West, we’ve often gotten the message that sexuality and desire are nothing but shameful and dangerous. But desire and devotion do not have to be mutually exclusive. Sexuality, when it’s appropriately channeled, can lead us toward love, happiness, connection, and even religious transcendence. Who knows? It might even help us avoid murder or suicide!