Chapter 1: Fireworks, Energy, and Light: Experiencing the Body ElectricLike on Star Trek when they get into the transporter and they sort of dissolve, I have that feeling of light going through me and a fire that goes down, the feeling that my body has been burned away to ash and there's nothing left, but I've been transported elsewhere.
-- LuckyI've felt my cells literally get lit up...like those little fiber-optic things. It's pervasive, not just on the surface of me, but through my whole system...and that would sometimes last for days.
-- ShakaIt's like liquid fireworks. It's like sparks that come out in liquid form.
I met Suzette, a vivacious, petite redhead, when she was in her fifties. She is a pragmatic, no-nonsense woman whose career had been spent in nursing and public health administration. She had been brought up in a conventional Midwestern home without knowledge of spiritual traditions outside the mainstream Christianity and Judaism of 1950s Middle America. She had never considered herself religious, but she came to me with a story that represents how transcendent sex transforms. She is the "everyman" and "everywoman" we all are. As we settled down to coffee in my office, she began to tell me about something that had happened many years ago with a man she'd only dated a few times. "I guess we've known each other more than twenty-five years now. We've had an on-and-off relationship because we live far apart," she explained. "When we've gotten together, many times we've had sex, and many times we've not. He's been a good friend."
They were business acquaintances living in different states whose professional activities brought them together periodically. They were just beginning to explore a more romantic connection when they had an opportunity to go to San Francisco together. "This trip was our first time to have sex," she confided, adding that it was enjoyable, that she was a little more nervous and excited than usual, but that nothing unusual had happened, until:
I had my eyes closed, and I began to see light, and light moving. It was just so incredibly powerful. It could even have been a different dimension. It felt very unusual.
The light was just going through me. I didn't know what it was part of, but it was definitely a physical feeling going through me and shooting out of the top of my head. I had feelings of white lights shooting out of the top of my head. The lights were really brilliant. The brightness of the lights was incredible. You think of sunlight or lightning, but nothing like this! It was radiant white light brighter than anything I'd seen in nature.
And then it also affected me emotionally in a way, and I started crying because it was overwhelming, an emotional effect like "Oh, my God, I'm coming home. I got home." A feeling that I'd been separated for a long time, like coming together, and finally being home.
I'm mainly a thinker, not emotional, but it was as if someone had taken a finger and pushed that incredible emotion button, and I really didn't know what hit me. I was so happy. It was a wonderful, peaceful feeling. Total peace, a feeling of great love and connection, and of going home.
Suzette was stunned. Nothing remotely like this had ever happened in her practical, down-to-earth life. Furthermore, such happenings did not mesh with her scientific knowledge or beliefs. She made some attempt to communicate what had occurred to her partner, but said, smiling ruefully, "I don't think he was aware of what was going on. I remember trying to tell him, and I think he laughed. He was a real stud, and we were in our early twenties, so it wasn't like he took it really seriously."
Suzette and her lover continued to see each other. Sex was always good, but it never reached those heights again for her. The liaison drifted into a friendship, and she eventually married someone else. Her marriage didn't work out, something she attributes to her ineptitude in the bedroom.
"I was just so naïve about sex," she commented, shaking her head. "My sex life with my husband was so bad.
He was into black fringe and nudity, and I was into my flannel nightgown. The poor guy! I feel sorry for him now when I think of it."
They eventually divorced. Weary of prolonged celibacy during the years raising her son alone and wanting to "get some experience," Suzette began to date the relative of a good friend. There was some affection but no real chemistry between them. To her surprise, after having sex with him on a few occasions, she had another experience of transcendence.
I had the lights again, the brilliant lights. It was all so amazing, that way of shooting lights out of my head. The only difference was that it was not as emotional as the first time. Still, it was intense.
I was sad when it was over because it was really an exciting, thrilling experience. I wasn't aware of anything else when the lights were going. I wasn't seeing anything else, had no sense of time....The whole world was gone away, so I wouldn't have had a clue.
And then it just kind of eased off. I felt a little shaky afterward. The first time, I cried more, probably because the chemistry seemed better so that I felt more melded to [the first lover], but not enough that I picked him and decided to be his partner.
This time, I was surprised, especially since I didn't really like him....I've had wonderful sex since then with other people, but it happened just those two times. It was such a beautiful, wonderful experience. What would it be like to have it with someone you were really loving and wanting to have a relationship with?
As moving as these two incidents were, they had little impact on her life at the time. She mused, "I'd have thought that after having that experience, I'd have been more interested in spirituality and sexuality, but no. I was struggling to have my career and raise my child."
Still the seed took root. When I met her, her son was grown and Suzette had laid aside her health-care career to undertake several years of spiritual exploration, a quest she attributed to those two episodes. She had become a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation and yoga. Both gave Suzette a way to understand her experiences, though she was never able to replicate them nor have comparable experiences through meditation or yoga. Groping for words to describe how she understood the sexual episodes, she said, "[They] seemed spiritual because there was a feeling of unity and because of the brilliance of the lights. I don't know if it was God or Buddha or something like that, but it was such a positive feeling that it had to be a higher power of some kind." She continued, moving to discuss how these events had changed her:
It made me have more confidence in myself....I do feel like a special person now. It gave me hope. It made me curious...I'm starting to look back at my life, and there's a part of my life I've really neglected. I'm working on spirituality now.
Having this kind of experience makes me believe that there is so much more than I ever realized there could be...more than I was seeing in the world. And it amuses me that it happened through a sexual experience. That wouldn't have been a predictable thing for me to guess!
So when I could, I started looking at other ways of living and thinking. I would have bet you money that I wouldn't be here [in the religious community where I interviewed her], but now look at me.
To have an experience like this gave me hope that there's guidance in my life, and in other peoples' lives. That there's more of a plan. It's like you're being pulled by Spirit, which -- I don't know -- but that experience gave me hope that such a thing might be possible.
Suzette's story, in a way, is like all the other stories in this book. The experiences follow a clear pattern:
- Individuals are surprised and dazzled by bedroom events that reveal a reality entirely foreign to their usual way of thinking. The events confound a religious person's beliefs or the disbelief of agnostics and atheists.
- The experience can occur regardless of how much "in love" or sexually skillful a person is.
- Most often, but not always, the experience involves only one member of the couple. The other party is frequently unaware that something earth-shattering is happening to the lover. Sadly, most people are reluctant to share these sacred, unsettling moments with partners because they fear a response that will be skeptical, mocking, or belittling. Over 80 percent of the people I talked to had never told another person what had happened to them.
- Depending on the nature of the episode -- and Suzette's experience is actually one of the most "normal" or least strange -- the person may feel euphoric, omniscient, dazed, disturbed, or frightened. Their foundations are shaken in ways that may seem life-affirming or threatening.
- The events may be hidden, but they are never forgotten. Like the near-death experiences that people kept secret before they became an acceptable part of public discourse, transcendent sexual episodes were recalled with extraordinarily vivid detail, even if they occurred long ago. Participants were relieved to be able to tell someone who was appreciative and nonjudgmental about some of the most significant things that had ever happened to them.
- Like more recognized spiritual openings, these experiences were life-changing events. The most skeptical agnostics and atheists were reluctant to ascribe a spiritual meaning to what had happened, but even they admitted that their understanding of the world had been radically altered and that they could not explain what had happened to them (the sample includes physicists, physicians, and other "hard" scientists). However the vast majority, regardless of their former religious beliefs or disbelief, eventually went on to take up some form of spiritual quest in an attempt to understand what had transpired. Of those, many began an active spiritual practice or vocation, attributing their interest to the "awakening" they had had during sex.
Transcendent episodes during sex, however bizarre, resemble those recognized in the world's major spiritual traditions. In fact, except for the context (making love as opposed to meditating, praying, ingesting sacred medicine, or participating in ritual ceremonies), transcendent sexual experiences have exact counterparts in the shamanism of indigenous religions as well as in the mysticism of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. The chapters in this section cross many different spiritual traditions, but they all include recognized altered states in which people access greater dimensions of the natural world than are part of "normal, walking-around reality."Heat and Light
Even when a person's sense of self and reality remain "normal," some people report strange energies coursing through the body. Sometimes it starts with a sense that the sexual charge normally rooted in the genitals is spreading throughout the entire body, lighting it up with crackling power and fireworks, shooting arcs, sparks, flashes of light and color. Two very different descriptions of what can happen come from Jorge, a professor, author, and lecturer, and Nell, a housewife and accomplished Buddhist meditator.
Jorge's experience began while just caressing his partner; actual intercourse never occurred. Despite the fact that he had neither an erection nor an orgasm, he described it as a "very sexual experience." "I'm not that familiar with [Tantra]," he began, "but the movement of energy was very clear...from the genital area, spreading through the body, through the arms and legs, reaching the areas of the hands and mouth that were extremely charged and then moving them to my partner...energy going through my arms, my legs, her arms, her legs, our mouths." As his body vibrated with sexual electricity, it seemed to break free of its usual constraints:
I felt a tremendous openness, and at some point, almost the emergence of a different body coming out, with a different breathing pattern, almost a different vibrational pattern, and more energy to it. I can't relate it to an astral body -- who knows? But it was a very clear, tangible experience of this emerging body....That body was very sexual, very sexual. I was still in my own body, but there was still this other body coming out....It's extremely exhilarating -- Beethoven's Ninth Symphony comes to mind, one of those big crescendos.
Nell, in contrast, began to dislike climaxing because her transcendent experiences were so much more thrilling. "Ordinary sex isn't interesting anymore," she said. "It's kind of boring and stupid to have this little spasm. [A] genital orgasm is a distraction now because it foreshortens or throws the switch on what can happen otherwise." She described the "otherwise" this way:
There's a very strong genital aspect to it, but it's more a sort of dance that brings one into a kind of luminous state where nectars are flowing and everything is light both internally and externally.
It is totally circulating, totally energizing. I never feel more totally awake, more totally alive than then. It's electric, really light-oriented, very much upwardly oriented. It enlightens the whole body. You have the subjective experience of all the molecules of your body, all the cells of your body lightening and separating so that each one becomes like a lightbulb. You become a light being totally embodied.
Still other people have experiences that clearly involve sexual energy but in ways that are much less direct. Some report being immersed in brilliant emerald, purple, blue, or golden light. Whether involving strong charges of heat and light, or quieter, more melting sensations, these experiences produce an amazing range of energetic perceptions. The strange perceptions and sensations are not merely odd, like a mild electric shock or an optical illusion, rather they are always accompanied by blissful emotions that seemed to elevate the participants to sublime realizations, especially a sense of heightened love and peace. Here are a few examples.
Austin, a social services professional, describes a night of love while he was in graduate school:
I started noticing what I would call a field of energy around our bodies, what in my mind's eye I would have called "red," and a sense that I was expanding outward. My sense of self extended five or six feet all around us and outward. My body was tingling all over, and there was a feeling of heat that went with the energy and the redness. The tingling was as intense as when your foot falls asleep but there wasn't the numbness.
It was completely pleasurable, blissful. I was filled with an amazing sense of love for my wife, myself, and for us as a unity, a whole. Definitely above and beyond the normal feelings of love. It was as much generated by her as by me or our situation. We filled the room with this red energy and heat...so that I felt I could reach out and touch all the corners.
Gloria, an agnostic who owns a retail business, talks about her connection with her lover:
The warmth and tingling starts in my toes, an electrical feeling that moves up my body and just goes out my eyes. When it's intense, it's almost blinding. There is an element of heat, but it's more the brightness of the light that's somewhat shocking.
But always this great sense of peace. I feel like it's the Universe's way of reassuring me that everything is right, as if I were a dog lying in front of a fireplace, and this giant, gentle hand is patting me, it just feels so good and comfortable. I'm connected with an energy level we don't usually connect to the everyday experience. I wouldn't necessarily say it's God, but maybe whatever the life force is. One day I may call it God.
Reginald, a self-employed businessman who lives on the East Coast describes an almost psychedelic experience:
I'm aware of energy, patterns, and electric colors, golden, white, or blue....It's like there's pure crackling, surging, grinding, burning energy.
Boundaries will tend to expand, and as the energy gets up into the head, it's like the top of the head gets blasted off. The farther the energy goes up the spine, the more intense it gets.
Opal, a former Roman Catholic and business manager of a computer company, thought the house was on fire:
When we were making love it seemed as though there was almost a ribbon of yellow, golden light streaming between us and around us in the room. I could see it visually but feel it as well. Afterward, we had fallen asleep, and I got up to go to the bathroom and saw this fire. I thought the loft was truly on fire, it was that vivid. There was a lot of golden light and fire shooting up. It was as though the whole downstairs was filled with these huge, gigantic flames.
But when I got downstairs, it wasn't there, even though I could see it from the loft. I realized then it wasn't actually a physical fire, but an essential one that was golden and quite beautiful. It didn't feel erratic, but calm, steady, not hot. Even as I'm talking about it to you, I can feel the flames in my heart like some passionate quality that was manifesting. I can feel it in the cells of my body, just this relaxation everywhere, this sweet love.
I can always come back to that place with my husband in one way or another even when we go through difficult things, I'm critical of him, he's driving me crazy or even when I hate him...this heart opening...never really closes back, as though the golden fire is always burning there to some degree.
dThe Snake Lady and the Divine Hermaphrodite
Every one of the lovers above described experiences that are typical of Tantra, a centuries-old spiritual path. Yet none of them knew anything about Tantra, except Nell, who said her Vajrayana Buddhist community leaders had forbidden it as too powerful a practice for all but the most advanced initiates. So what is going on here?
Tantra is a Hindu and Buddhist tradition that cultivates sexual energy as a path to enlightenment (Taoism does, as well). Yogic Tantra is based on the premise that Spirit exists even in the profane and can be accessed through the most forbidden acts. It was a revolutionary movement originally aimed at breaking the class system and violating taboos by using "reverse" spirituality, in other words, achieving enlightenment by doing the very things most forbidden by religious authorities. (Classic Tantra includes the ritual eating of meat, for instance, and other taboo substances, as well as glorifying sex.)
In Tantra, enlightenment is achieved through increasingly subtle participation in the mantrum, Om mani padme om
(popularly translated as "the jewel is in the lotus"), a sexual metaphor that encodes the route for dissolution of the individual's soul into the World Soul (Atman). Although the World Soul is inexpressible, it is symbolized by the god Shiva and the goddess Shakti, whose eternal sexual embrace sustains reality. Shiva is all-powerful but passive. Shakti's sexual energy is the enlivening spiritual force of the cosmos. The World Soul arises from their interpenetrating union. Tantric aspirants are taught to emulate this divine union in their own bodies by becoming one with the Goddess and at the same time uniting with the God. In other words, they must become both male and female themselves.
Classic Tantric training involved actual sexual intercourse. Over time, though, physical lovemaking between men and women was gradually eliminated. Soon men were the only acceptable initiates, and women were invited primarily as Goddess surrogates to assist the initiates' spiritual advancement until the men could activate their sexual arousal just by meditating on Shakti. The men would learn to move genital excitement, a form of holy energy, into other parts of the body without intercourse.
This holy energy is thought to reside in every human body. It is symbolized by a female snake named Kundalini coiled at the base of the spine. Spiritual practices involve "awakening" the Snake Lady, and learning to move her sacred life force upward from the sexual organs and anus to higher levels in the body. Kundalini awakenings in historic and contemporary records describe exactly the same altered perceptions reported by people having spontaneous transcendent sex experiences. Kundalini normally ascends through the body's primary energy centers (chakras) until it bursts from the top of the head (the crown chakra) -- as Suzette's did. This energetic phenomenon is widely recognized as a sign of spirituality. In fact, in Eastern and Western sacred art, saints and sages are shown with luminosity streaming from the crown chakra in the form of halos or tongues of fire surrounding the head.
When fully activated, the Snake Lady is said to course through two channels identified as the male and female meridians in the human body. She first makes a complete circuit linking the masculine and feminine meridians within the person's body (and in contemporary Tantric practice, connecting with the male and female meridians in the lover's body to complete a circuit). Then, when the aspirant can move this energy from both male and female meridians up through the crown chakra, she completes the circuit with the male and female aspects of the World Soul. Adepts, regardless of their biological sex, are said to have transcended the polarities of male and female to achieve nonduality, the bliss of nirvana. In a spiritual sense reflected in their energetic transcendence of masculine and feminine, they are a microcosm of the Divine Hermaphrodite that is the World Soul, the One from which all sexual duality in creation emanates.
The Divine Hermaphrodite may be the most universally recognized symbol of Spirit. Virtually every theistic religion starts with an Original Being who embodies both male and female principles. These deities -- and other holy avatars, when they appear to mortals -- are incandescent. They are represented as having energetic forms of blinding radiance. They are Beings of Light, variously portrayed in Tibetan tankas
, described in the Bible in the afterglow of Moses' face from his encounter with God and in the transfiguration of Jesus, and repeatedly mentioned in contemporary near-death experiences, sightings of the Virgin Mary and other spiritual visitations. They reside in celestial realms of jeweled light, the land of eternal day.
Jorge, Nell, Austin, Gloria, Reginald and Opal all seem to have glimpsed these glorious possibilities. Perhaps they somehow jostled the Snake Lady, shifting her coils and unleashing enough of her powerful force within their bodies to pierce the veil. Since Tantra (and Taoist sex, too) involves controlling and redirecting genital excitement as well as withholding male ejaculation for the longest possible period of interpenetration, it's not surprising that some lovers discover the gifts of these practices on their own, without any formal tutoring in erotic technique. Some of the gifts can be startling, though, especially to the unprepared.Amateur Night
Sexual energy is nothing to play with, and in fact, many Westerners who write books and lead workshops purporting to be Tantric actually focus more on relationship issues and achieving more and better orgasms, than on activating powerful and unpredictable forces for spiritual purposes. It's safer. Indeed, some individuals, seeking to enhance their sexual performance, have been discomfited by forces that can be difficult to channel without expert guidance. For example, a man I know who began to experiment with prolonged penetration after reading a book on Tantra developed such a tingling, buzzing sensation in his hands and feet that he was unable to sleep or be comfortable for weeks until it finally wore off. A woman, attempting to channel her sexual energy into her partner unbeknownst to him, caused him to have mild hallucinations for several hours.
It's good to have an idea of what can
occur even when there is no deliberate attempt to manipulate or increase sexual energy. A number of people I interviewed wished they had had some way to understand what was happening to them because the effects were sometimes disturbing, especially those physical effects that seemed out of their control. But no matter how strange or out of place the behaviors they reported might be in an American bedroom, in every case these behaviors have been recognized as signs of spiritual attainment in different religious traditions.
For instance, some respondents reported generating great heat in their bodies far in excess of regular sexual flushing. They were hot to the touch and sweating copiously. One man's body temperature rose to about 105 degrees for several hours, yet he was certain he was not ill. As it happens, the ability to control the body's temperature at will, especially to elevate it, is a sign of spiritual mastery in yogic and Buddhist traditions. Tibetan monks may swathe themselves in wet clothing and then spend the night in the snow in tumo
, an exercise to demonstrate their powers. Their ability not only to survive but also dry their clothing and melt the snow around them with their body heat is a sign of their spiritual attainment.
Other participants found that the energy streaming through their bodies caused them to move in unaccustomed and uncontrollable ways. According to one woman, "I could really distinguish between my voluntary movements and this energy that would move me. My lover could tell that it was different, too. It would be almost a convulsive energy. He called it flopping like a fish out of water, which kind of took the beauty out of it." She laughed, but went on to say, "This happened almost every time I made love for a year."
Such motions aren't laughing matters in most religions. Spontaneous gestures and postures (known respectively as kriyas
) are standard features of yogic and other contemplative traditions, where they are considered signs of sublime realization. In sacred art, many of these distinctive gestures are used to distinguish divinities from other beings, for example, through the way the fingers are displayed in the sign of blessing.
In my study, one woman was startled when she and her lover began speaking in tongues (glossolalia), a phenomenon associated with a visitation by the Holy Spirit and fairly common in charismatic Christian circles, but definitely not part of her Midwestern High-Church Episcopalian background.
We would spontaneously start speaking in tongues. At first I felt kind of embarrassed about that, like, "What is this?"...It sometimes felt like I was just praising him [her lover]. It came out in these series of sounds, but they sounded like language, and sometimes they were the same sounds repeated again and again and again. I don't know if they're language or not, but sometimes they sound a little bit Asian or African to me.
Either he would start speaking in tongues, or I would, and it was another signal that this wave of energy is coming over us, through the different movements of my tongue or different hand gestures.
Another couple was surprised by an event virtually unknown outside esoteric sexual practice. Lilah, a cosmopolitan jet-setter, and her lover were shocked when so much watery fluid gushed from them during lovemaking that their first thought was of lost bladder control:
And at first, it was like, "Oh, my God, did you pee?" We both asked each other that. Eventually we realized I was ejaculating, and it would happen every time I was in orgasm.
At first we were just freaked out at the massive quantities of it. One time it shot four feet into the air, and since I'd have forty orgasms or so, we had a soaking-wet bed, through and through and through. We had to laugh, it was so funny. We learned to get towels and blankets to put around us when we made love.
What was happening to Lilah is actually a commonplace occurrence in Tantric sex known as amrita
, the profuse production of female ejaculate.
As odd -- or even grotesque -- as such manifestations may sound, when they occur they are accompanied by such intense bliss and insight that lovers are unconcerned about appearances, and totally convinced that these signs are beatific manifestations of Spirit. Lilah spoke for virtually all of the people I interviewed, when she said: "Even though these things would have looked strange to an observer...nothing was too way out there. The only thing you're really aware of is the intensity of this Divine Love and what's happening with this energy in your body....We just had this experience of God and love that was like nothing anybody had ever seen."
Yet despite the fact that almost all the individuals in this study were positively transformed by events they ascribed to grace, such powerful openings can be destabilizing in the short term. The hazards associated with the deliberate pursuit of altered states along the spiritual path have been long recognized, one reason some practices are forbidden to aspirants until they have demonstrated certain levels of mastery. Accidental openings can happen to anyone, and those characterized by strong physical symptoms can sometimes convince experiencers and the people around them that they are going crazy or have become very ill. The relatively large number of accidental openings in the United States in the 1970s spawned a crisis service for "spiritual emergencies" as an alternative to institutionalization. Chapter 10 discusses some of the dangers associated with transcendent sex and ways to guard against them.The Laughter of God
Yet no matter how strange, or even insignificant, changes in bodily sensation may seem to us -- especially ones that happen during sex, of all things -- the people who experience them regard them as profoundly moving events, an evaluation supported by the esteemed status these signs have in different spiritual traditions. Something as "simple" as seeing the light may, in fact, mean literally seeing the Light,
as one woman attests: "The only thing in my life that equaled the feeling of seeing those lights was giving birth. Yes. It felt that
significant and that
emotional and that
all-encompassing, and that
creative and that
For Lilah, who was moved to tears while she was recounting what had happened to her, there is no question that she had a spiritual experience of the greatest magnitude, "because at some level it's only the Energy so that your body is not quite present. I'm aware of the heart chakra being as big as the universe -- huge and infinitely loving. I equate that with Christ-consciousness, with Buddha-consciousness. It's one with everything."
And even for Jorge, whose liaison, like Suzette's, didn't occur within the venue of a meaningful relationship, there is no question that the events had a joyfully sacred quality that eventually changed the entire orientation of his professional interests:
You have this sense of being present, of an openness to life energies that are sacred, like an ecstasy that my mind associates with spirituality. You're in the middle of it, and the sense of Divinity becomes very playful. You're filled with emotions, but you're not taking yourself so seriously. There's something about it, almost of humor, like the laughter of God.
Another participant voiced the universal response to such openings: "There were times where there was somebody inside me shouting yes, yes, yes. Not just my little voice, but much bigger than me. That whole cosmic YES, YES, YES."
In the next chapter, the presence of God -- and the gods -- is not confined to subtle or even dramatic sensations, but manifests as outward visitations in the bedroom.
Copyright © 2004 by Jenny Wade