The Biological Basis of
SACRED SEXby catherine yronwode
The illustration on this page is a modern American sex charm
from the pages of the Lucky W Amulet Archive.
This essay began in 1995 as private e-mail to a man who said he wanted some straight instructions on tantric sex. He was not religious and was not interested in Hinduism, so he worried that tantra might require him to convert to some religion or other. He also wanted to know if studying tantra meant that he would have to "suppress" his orgasms, which he said did not sound like fun. He said that he had been trying to "suppress" his orgasms and wasn't having much success.
The following comprises the basic anatomical and technical (non-religious) advice on tantric techniques i was given and can pass along. I am not a teacher of the subject. For what it's worth, here is...
MY STORY: NOTHING SPECIAL
I first read about tantric-style sex (under the name karezza) in 1962. It was not until 1975 that i met someone who wanted to try it. He had read about it, too; neither of us had a teacher. It worked for us! That's all i can say. It worked! It didn't make us life-partners and it didn't turn either of us into swinging singles, either. We did not join a religious cult. It did take us to spiritual vistas of sexual beauty and unity.
In 1977 a long-time friend of mine told me he wanted to try it with me. We had never made love before, so we discussed the subject for about half an hour and then we did it. Again, a spiritual experience was found to grow from this humblest of biological acts. Although this man and i have rarely seen each other since that time, that experience changed my life, for i realized then that all of the religious mumbo-jumbo i had read about tantra was just a bunch of socio-cultural veneer laid over a basic biological-spiritual truth.
NEUROLOGICAL CLUES TO A SPIRITUAL MYSTERY
In the 1950s (before he got into dolphin brain research), John C. Lilly did some neurological studies of monkeys. His published notes reveal that he found four points in the brain that control the sexual response of (male) monkeys. He used males because their sexual responses (tumescence, ejaculation, etc.) were easier to see and thus to quantify than the responses of female monkeys -- but the mechanism is the same in both sexes.
According to Lilly, the first neural point in the series regulated arousal (erection). The second point regulated muscular contraction (ejaculation). The third point regulated the orgasm itself (sensation of sexual culmination). The fourth point he called the "master switch," for when it was stimulated, it entrained the three previously-mentioned centers, causing the monkey to experience erection, ejaculation, and orgasm in the usual predictable order.
Although Lilly himself did not try to apply this research to human beings, i think that his discovery of these four points in the brains of monkeys indicate that it is possible, through conscious and learned control, for us to separate the entrainment center from the process and thus experience erection (circulatory system), ejaculation (muscular system), or orgasm (neural system) independent of each other.
We all have experienced this disassociation of the entrainment center at one time or another (not always under our conscious volition) as when, for instance, we achieve tumescence but not orgasm, or have an "involuntary" ejaculation, or have an "unsatisfying" orgasm in which the contractions do not bring the normal degree of sensory pleasure. What tantra and karezza teach is how to control these things so that one can experience orgasm without contraction, thus prolonging it beyond the biologically-regulated constraint imposed by the amount of time it takes to complete the 8-25 contractions you would normally have.
So -- in strictly biological terms -- the practice of tantra or karezza can be seen as somewhat akin to the practice of biofeedback training. It is sort of like learning to wiggle your ears -- it's something you have to work at, because the volitional control of the musculature involved is not part of our usual training in life.
So where does the experience of spirituality come from? That, i have come to believe, is part of our neurological hard-wiring too. Human beings seem to be naturally equipped to experience the metaphysical world. Many ages-old techniques for perceiving the realm of spirit make use of repetition (of hymns, prayers, chants, dances) while engaging in single-minded attentiveness to cosmic forces. Tantra provides both repetition and attentiveness. It is not the only way to achieve spiritual bliss, as its religious practitioners may assert, but it is one way, and that is good enough for me.
Numerous treatises have been written on the "techniques" of tantra yoga and karezza. The former encompasses several systems of Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist religious and physical practices that may or may not include sex acts. The latter is a term coined in the United States during the 19th century by Dr. Alice Bunker Stockham for her system of non-religious sexual metaphysics based in part on Hindu tantra yoga. Other 19th century American forms of non-religious sacred sex training include Paschal Beverly Randolph's "anseiratic mysteries" and Reverend John Humphrey Noyes' "male continence" (so called because the man refrains from orgasm).
Despite cultural differences, actual instructions for what to do during the sex act are remarkably similar from one "school" of sacred sex to another. This alone is a strong indication that there is a universal biological truth beneath the various forms of tantra and karezza. It is therefore my opinion -- and i admit this may be offensive to Hindu and Buddhist tantrikas -- that specifically religious instructions can be ignored without damage to the core teaching of tantric sex.
If you want to learn the techniques, first, you have to notice what your orgasm reflex is. Just observe it a few times (ten or more times) and pay attention to how it works. (You might want to do this while masturbating, as it could prove distracting to a partner.) Especially, notice that there is a brief moment at the onset of orgasm when you are consciously aware that it is about to occur but it has not yet become inevitable. That's where you will later spend your time.
In the typical orgasm (both male and female) there are 8 to 25 muscular contractions. Women may have more than men; how many you have will vary at times. Get to know how many contractions you usually experience. (For instance, my usual number is 18-20; it's never fewer, but sometimes more, and that has not changed in 30 years).
Now, rather than "suppressing" an orgasm, try to let one or two contractions happen and then relax. If you can learn to let one or two waves of orgasmic contractions occur and then relax by breathing slowly, and being attentive, and letting your abdominal muscles go limp (NOT by trying to think of something else to "distract" yourself), then you can learn to repeat this over and over again. Imagine yourself at the edge of a wave of pleasure, a wave which does not break over and run onto the shore.
You can practice this with a partner or while masturbating. It's easier with a partner, because he or she can hold you at the wave-edge, gently changing position and thus slowing you from going into the stage of involuntary pelvic thrusts you have been trying to "suppress."
While you are learning to ride the wave-edge, take turns with your partner. As one of you rides the wave of bliss, the other acts as a "lookout," keeping the wave-rider from falling into the undertow of orgasm. When the wave-rider reaches saturation and relaxes, you trade roles. During the course of one sexual encounter, you may trade roles often, for an hour or more. You may also rest (in a semi-detumescent state), and begin again later if you like. When you and your partner become attuned to one another, you will no longer think about who is riding the wave and who is guiding; the roles will blend and mesh and you will both simply "be" there. That is basically the "secret teaching" of tantra.
Sometimes, while learning these techniques, the lookout partner becomes suffused with a feeling of personal power, knowing that he or she can cause the wave-riding partner to have an orgasm, simply by making a slight gesture at the point when the wave-rider is letting go and relaxing. This experience of power should not be devalued. It is profoundly moving to realize that someone has given his or her sexuality into your control and it is a pleasure of high magnitude to watch the process of your partner's orgasm unfold -- but once you understand your power in the situation, don't force your partner over the edge, for mistrust may develop, and the partner who is continually forced into orgasm may lose the fine proprioceptive senses he or she should be developing. Occasionally, when one partner is sexually needy (for instance, a woman during the ovulation or pre-menstrual portion of her cycle), the gift of release into orgasm may be offered and accepted, but be prepared for the offer to be refused, too. Remember, at all times your goal should be to share equally in the experience, not to second-guess what you think your partner wants.
One recommended minimum length of time to spend exchanging off-and-on waves between partners is twenty minutes. It is believed by many who have practiced and studied this, including myself, that although less than forty minutes will be pleasant, it will not produce the sought-after spiritual experience. Remember, this time is shared between the two of you; typically, that does not even mean exactly ten minutes each at the edge-point, for it may take you a few seconds or a minute to get back to that place of wave-riding after you have had your turn being the lookout for your partner. As your experience increases, you may find that you can switch from lookout to wave-rider in less than a handful of seconds; when that happens, you have only to be careful that you do not become over-confident and "forget" to relax when your training tells you it is time to relax.
If, by reason of forgetfulness or over-excitement, either partner is drawn inexorably into orgasm, neither party should be alarmed, angry, or distressed. For one thing, if you have been very close to the edge for a long time and you see your partner slipping over, it's a simple matter to dive in and join the orgasmic experience. Or, if you prefer, you can watch, content in viewing from the vantage point of calm contemplation. It has been my experience that when one partner fails to maintain the wave-riding technique, he or she usually half-apologizes and is forgiven with tender kisses; there is no sense of disappointment or resentment, because both partners know that the supply of pleasure is not meted out stingily and that balance will be restored in due time.
If you get good at these techniques and enjoy them, you may find that you will have achieved the "satisfaction" of an orgasm (that is, your sex drive will be temporarily sated) after twenty or thirty minutes and you will not necessarily want an orgasm, or you may experience orgasmic sensations which are not accompanied by contractions. On the other hand, you may find that the moment you both decide you are sated and that neither of you wants a conventional orgasm, you both do, RIGHT NOW, and you may finish the sex act rather tumultuously.
In non-religious tantric practices like karezza there is no premium placed on avoidance of the fully contractive orgasm -- that is, there is no theorizing about a man's kundalini energy shooting up from his testicles into his brain and being sucked back down and "wasted" if he ejaculates -- so choosing to have or not have orgasms may depend on your personalities, the time of month (for a woman), how the two of you feel about the benefits of "pure" (non-orgasmic) tantra, and how much each of you enjoy the sheer physical workout of the push toward orgasm.
For more on the techniques espoused in karezza that do not occur in the better-known discipline of tantra yoga, see my pages on Karezza Techniques and Male Control of Ejaculation.
IS THIS SACRED SEX...OR JUST "GREAT SEX"?
No amount of practicing "techniques" is going to guarantee a spiritual experience, and i would be loathe to promise anything of the kind to one who reads this. In fact, it might be said that the search for mastery over "techniques" is a blind alley of a sort, for studying methodology to the exclusion of developing heartfelt reverence for life and sexual union may not lead to anything beyond a certain measure of control over the sex act, without the sense of holy awe and spiritual bliss that is central to the tantra and karezza experience.
Still, in my opinion -- based on my personal experience and that of my friends -- these techniques are more than a recipe for great sex. I believe that if you engage in them with a reverent heart, you WILL experience spiritual feelings while doing them. These spiritual feelings have formed the basis for several sexually-oriented religions and magic cults, but it is up to you to place them into whatever metaphysical context best suits your own self.
Traditional Hindu tantric practices -- eating the five sacred foods, raising kundalini energy through your chakras, seeing the blue light, and so forth -- are of use to you only insofar as you accept the allegorical, religious, alchemical, or symbolic premises that underlie them.
If you perceive the heart-chakra as nothing more than the location of a muscle-pump, it would be meaningless for you to visualize kundalini energy in your heart. But something will happen in your heart, nonetheless, and you will find a name for it.
If you think that the god Siva and the goddess Durga are remote and obscure from your daily experience or cultural conditioning, it would be a waste of your time to learn their names or their iconographic and gestural attributes. But nameless or named, sitting lotus-fashion or not, you and your partner will enter a realm of divinity, so be prepared, for tantra will take you there.
To allow sexually spiritual feelings to evolve without embedding them in a religious context, try the karezza technique of looking into your partner's eyes, thinking about the universality of sexual congress among all species, and then extending your awareness out beyond the pair of you to the world and to the cosmos. You may find yourself in what is called by some "the magnetic ocean," a sensation that you are partaking of a universal, ongoing sexual experience that is life itself. This sensation of magnetism during meditation gave rise to another 19th century American name for karezza -- magnetation, a term coined by John William Lloyd.
STARTING OUT -- WITH A PARTNER OR ON YOUR OWN
If you are in a committed relationship and become interested in tantra or karezza, you should be cautious in bringing the subject up with your partner. He or she may take your interest as evidence that you are disinterested in "normal" sex or may feel you are disparaging his or her sexuality as not "good enough" for you. Your partner may think it is "unromantic" to discuss biologically-based spirituality or that sexual activity requiring a bit of practice is less "spontaneous" than untutored sexual activity. Be prepared to deal with these concerns patiently.
If you have no partner, one way to explore tantra as a spiritual experience is to invoke one. In Tibetan Buddhist tantra this imaginary lover is called a tulpa. When invoking a tulpa, give honour and respect to the person upon whom the image is based. Do not imagine that you and your tulpa are doing conventionally "hot" or "sexy" things; instead imagine that your tulpa and you are meditating and magnetising as described above. If you decide to have an orgasm, offer it to your tulpa as you would to your lover, as a prayer, a blessing, a sacred gift. A dear and funny tantra friend of mine once described his sacred masturbatory orgasms by paraphrasing an old song by The Shirelles:
Each night before i go to bed, my baby
I whisper a little prayer for you, my baby
And tell all the stars above:
"This is dedicated to the One-Eyed Love"
I hope that these simple hints will reach the readers for whom they are intended. I am not a teacher of tantra, merely a karezza woman; for more information, you may wish to read books on the subject or take a tantra workshop or training class from a qualified teacher. If you are looking for a tantra yoga guru or a teacher of Westernized tantra techniques, please go the Teacher List maintained by E-Sensuals (with which i am not affiliated). The people named on that list are reputable and many of them travel to various regions of the world, so ask about their touring schedules.
Whatever you do next, know that you are not alone. Sacred sex is the magnetic ocean in which many of your fellow humans are floating even as you read these words. If everyone were like us, this world would be a more peaceful place in which to live.
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