Friday, June 28, 2013

sexy sex-sex and the holy spirit

This week I bought a magazine at the market called Spirituality & Health, and the cover story's about finding the sacredness in sex. It's an interesting magazine, and I've never read it before, but it seems right up my street: a healthy dash of yoga and energetic work, with a balance of major world religions.

So this article, "In Pursuit of Sacred Sex", was what was really compelling. It started by discussing this Mormon who went to a Tantric sex workshop without his wife--who was uninterested in getting down like that, but wouldn't stand in his way--and by the end of his thread he'd become a teacher of sacred-spot massage (which is a tidy way of saying someone who teaches people how to find and massage women's G-spot and bring her to orgasm). There was some discussion of polyamory, a great section profiling Dan Savage and his work, and a couple of hetero couples who spoke about the kind of switch that they went through with sex before and after marriage.

(While it was interesting to read, it was also covered in suggestive pictures of flowers. Think Robert Mapplethorpe meets Georgia O'Keefe.)

The Christian church is notoriously bad at dealing with sex, regardless of preference. What I learned about sex from the church wasn't helpful at all. It was really rooted in a masculine framework: friends and relatives would quote scripture from Paul's epistles at me, about how it's better for "man" to be single, so that he can more effectively do the work of God, but if he's going to "burn with passion" then he should marry--but not fuck around. One of the experts in this article, Lisa Fullam of the Jesuit School of Theology blames the church's shame-based attitude around sex on Saint Augustine. "There is nothing which degrades the manly spirit more than the attractiveness of females and contact with their bodies," he said. Ugh.

Is there some connection between the current backlash against women's bodies in American politics, and the stiff, repressive nature of sex in The Church? Probably, but I can't say for certain. This article makes a great point of sharing that Christ treated women really well. He hung out with anyone who would care to keep company with him, and he treated Mary Magdalene and other women like people. This was pretty revolutionary, given that his own posse treated women as servants and nuisances. Funny how easy it is for us to talk about being like Christ, but really forgetting--or sidestepping--the real example that he was to others, in his actions and words. In my experience, the churches I attended didn't do a great job of framing sex as anything but a sin.

I remember my mother telling me that if I got pregnant I'd have to move out. "This house was built for two generations, not three", she said. I came of age in the '90s, and AIDS was still unknown to her, a disease not infecting black women as frequently as it is now. The worst thing that could happen to me was a baby, not illness, not abuse, not a loss of self-worth. To her credit, she also taught me what a condom is, and how to use one, and she put me on birth control in high school. I don't think she thought I would lose my virginity in high school (and I didn't--that is, losing my virginity was a part of my senior summer, a graduation gift to myself, if you will), but it's nice that she equipped me with the basics.

I remember a young man, maybe 18, getting up in front of the congregation and confessing that he'd gotten a girl pregnant. He was crying, blubbering, while he stood beside one of the assistant pastors. I don't know why he did that. I don't know if someone made him, and I remember, even then feeling so sad about how much shame he seemed to be drowning in. Why is this so bad? I remember thinking. I never asked, because I knew the answer I'd receive, but still, I was disappointed that this guy felt so bad about his actions. What a disappointment he must have felt to the congregation, but if sex had been framed differently for him, maybe it wouldn't have been so bad. Maybe he could have chosen to have a baby, rather than having a baby dropped into his life. (No, we're not turning this into a conversation about abortion. Later, later.)

When I began reading the article, I hoped that it would be more about pre-marital sex than about sex inside spiritual individuals and relationships. It wasn't. Every sexually active couple was married, or at least Partnered. Losing my virginity was difficult: I got a handful of lectures from my mother, based on the frequency with which she knew I was having sex, and I got browbeaten with the New Testament by a Christian girlfriend.

I've been sexually active for fifteen years. I have great sex with a man who loves me well, but I'm still shedding  some of the guilt that was my inheritance from a largely Christian sexual education. I don't feel guilty for having sex, or for enjoying it, but there's some unlearning that has to happen about roles and experiences. To say nothing of my partner and the kind of baggage he brings into our bed. I hope for life experiences, and spiritual experiences, that can help us enjoy sex for all it has to offer, the endorphins, the closeness and the holy connection. I guess we just have to take it one position at a time.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I Know I Am. Are You?

Found this today. For every woman who thought no one was strong enough for her. For every woman who was told or taught that to be loved means you have to be accommodating, demure. Quiet. Meek.

Warsan Shire, "For Women Who Are Difficult to Love"

Monday, June 17, 2013


For weeks now, I’ve been thinking about the same series of sentences:

Now, the teachings of yoga. Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Then pure awareness abides in its own nature.

I’m not sure where I read this, in its language. It’s kind of a compilation of several translations I’ve read; although when I page through my own copies of the yoga sutras, usually in the back of any of a number of books—Ashtanga manual, The Heart of Yoga, a Stephen Cope book—none of these is quite right, none of them matches. A word is different, or the meaning changes somehow.

(Sidebar: it’s interesting that these words keeps floating up toward me, like scripture. I remember as a child being required to memorize verses: I John 4:7-8; I Corinthians 13, that ubiquitous love chapter read at every wedding you’ve ever attended; the 23rd Psalm. The idea, based on scripture, is that when you fill your head and heart with scripture, you equip the holy spirit with the tools to greet you internally with the verses that you need to stay strong or be encouraged or whatever. Sounds magical. Never mind the idea that the holy spirit should be powerful enough to reach you regardless of your ability to recall bible verses. I love magic, but in my experience, the dark side of this coin is that these verses get used as weapons by people who are trying to tell you what to do, or not to do, or who are trying to make themselves more comfortable. Frankly, I’d be more interested in the holy spirit just talking to me in plain English. I’d probably hear it better if I got a text message on my iPhone. Sounds jaded, sure, and I believe in the power of the divine enough to take any shape it needs to reach people who are open to being reached. But at this point in my life, I’m a little twitchy about a disembodied voice that speaks scripture into my brain. I imagine a combo of Jiminy Cricket, St. Paul and Pat Robertson. Shiver.)

So maybe this is new information, and in a minute I’ll pull it apart a little, but I just want to reflect first on the idea that yoga is not (just) poses: it’s not sun salutations or whether or not you can drop back to upward bow from standing, or how many arm balances you can hold or how long you can stay in headstand. Asana, right, the Sanskrit word meaning poses—yoga is not asana. Yoga is the suspension of the fluctuations of the mind. Yoga is stillness, quiet. According to the Desikachar translation, “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” My absolute favorite definition so far is in The Wisdom of Yoga: “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.” It is as if all elements, all molecules, all thoughts and actions in us that are radiating out into the universe—and often outside of our control, much as we believe otherwise—are being brought closer and closer to the center of us, slower, closer, ever more still and quiet, until we are quiet, clear and undisturbed, like a glass-clear pond reflecting the world, to which you can see the bottom.

I like to think about this phrase, the patterning of consciousness, because I feel like that means so much. Just think about it for a minute: Consciousness is what you’re thinking, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about what you’re doing, what happens around you and how you respond to it: your awareness. How much are you conscious of, or not, in a given day? I know it takes me time to figure out what I’m reacting to that may not actually be present: for instance, this morning I was watching a TV show called Your House, My Money—and if that title doesn’t give you a clue, then I don’t know what will—and found myself all wound up. My chest was tight and I wasn’t breathing, my stomach was hard and (not that this doesn’t happen every day but) I was talking to the TV like we were having an argument: “You don’t have to live here. Either you want to help or you don’t, but you don’t get to control everything!” 

So I realized first: this show makes me feel like crap. Then, remote in hand, I thought, I don’t want to watch this show, and I clicked the TV off. Then I thought, wow, this is really quite a trigger for me. I don’t like watching adult children be bullied by their relatives and their relatives’ money, because I can remember many experiences when my parents bullied me with their money. Their money (and by extension their support and/or love) was forthcoming and boundless, so long as I made decisions they favored. It was really hurtful for me to feel like my parents were investing in the business that was me; they were the board of directors happy to write checks and smile benevolently at board meetings, so long as I brought back the returns that they wanted. It really damaged our relationship. 

The whole process start to finish probably took me five minutes or so, which is an eternity when you're talking about your brain's and body's ability to input information and respond to it. Maybe it happened a lot faster than that, but it felt slow.

So was I doing yoga this morning on my sofa watching HGTV? I doubt it, but maybe. I didn't spin off into a foul mood; instead I had a feeling, investigated it, understood it, and then it no longer controlled me. The patterns of my mind didn't cease, but they did slow. So maybe I was: houseandgardenasana.
I'm no yoga scholar to be sure, at least not yet, but I love that there's a practice that I can do that helps me look at my patterns: of thinking, of reacting, of ideas and behavior that I repeat over and over. I love that I have a way of discovering why I'm attracted to the same kind of woman as a friend, or why I struggle to find work that is both financially safe and emotionally satisfying, or why my Favorite and I may have the same fight over and over again.
Took this at a yoga studio in  Logan Square; the Tin Man is trying to get into adho mukha, and his little speech bubble says, "This is bullshit!" It made me laugh out loud. I'm wondering, what kinds of patterns occur in our asana practice that mirror our patterns off the mat?

How many of us really honestly examine our patterns? Flannery O'Connor says, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information to last him the rest of his days." Well, certainly enough writing material. To paraphrase my therapist (and Harville Hendrix), when we pick a mate, we're trying to work out some childhood damage with a parent. I know, I know, it's so trite we all want to gag, but maybe there's something to it. We're probably ruled by our unconscious patterns a whole lot more than we know. I remember watching patterns reenact themselves over and over in my family growing up: we all had our patterns that made us feel safe, or less bad or less scared or more present. Yoga, as a tool for slowing the patterning of consciousness, of shining a light on what is often so dark that we don't even know it or see it, sounds so exciting to me. Not only do we have a practice that can help strengthen our body and our breath, reduce our stress levels and help sharpen our focus (and here I'm talking about a few of the eight limbs of yoga, not just asana, aka limb #3), but it can help us understand why we got so mad at that barista who reminded us of our wicked grandmother.

So what does this mean? Do we have to spend the rest of our lives in Downward Dog? Are we going to have an epiphany in headstand one day, and suddenly we'll come out of the closet, and realize we've been so mean to our girlfriend because we really wish she was a man? Well, maybe. I heard Bryant Terry say in a speech that he was in a history Ph.D. program and was also doing a lot of yoga when he realized his destiny was to be a plant-based chef so he could bring healthy food to his community. So maybe with enough physical practice our enlightenment will change our lives. If you believe in your body's connection to your mind and soul, then it could totally happen. But this idea of yoga being an activity and a lifestyle that can give us the opportunity to grow, to understand ourselves more deeply, to  change who we are: I'm super-excited about that. I'll be thinking about these words for a while.

Friday, June 14, 2013


Found this online, wikipedia, I think. There are some really scary, creepy cat photos out there, folks.
So I've been dreaming of cats lately. Twice inside a month, I've been visited by a cat--although I don't know if it's the same cat in both dreams--that decided it was living with me. In the second dream I turned to my husband and said, "Okay, I guess we have a cat now." Both times the cat could communicate with me, shaking or nodding its head when I asked it a question. A cat recently visited me in a meditation and gave me some really lovely and inspiring advice about dealing with a great loss.

So when I consult my Animal Spirit book, it says this about the cat:
"Cats have been domesticated since at least ancient Egypt, where the mythical cat Bast, the daughter of the sun god Ra, was goddess of the home... Several other ancient religions believed that cats are souls, angels, companions or guides for humans, and are omniscient. While in Islam there is not a sacred species, it is said by some writers that Muhammad had a favorite cat, Muezza and that '[the Prophet] would do without his cloak rather than disturb one that was sleeping on it.'
"Cats convey independence, connection with the female spirit, self-love and the ability to walk quietly and with longevity. Call on Cat when rumors are swirling around you and you need the strength to shrug them off; when suffering from low self-esteem; when it is necessary to approach an adversary or opponent quietly or surreptitiously."

So, cat. I've always been more partial to dog, because dogs are friendlier and have lots of energy, which makes us a perfect fit. But maybe there's a cat out there who needs me, needs us, and the Universe wants to help us find him or her. I'm open to it; we don't quite feel ready for a pet, but it might be nice.

Monday, June 3, 2013

pennsylvania dreamin'

Wednesday night I had a dream about my father and Billy Joel. You know that song, "She's Always A Woman" off the Billy Joel album The Stranger? (I loved that album, although not so much that song, but whatever.  I feel like that song was a huge part of my childhood; I heard it all the time on the easy listening station my parents tuned into on the car radio.)

In the dream, my dad was one of those guys from Allerton, Pennsylvania who works for a living in the mines or construction, whatever: you know, a real Working Joe. (This is not who my dad was. Don't get me wrong, he was a Working Joe for sure, and often he worked too hard. But although he comes from really humble beginnings, he's a white-collar clock-puncher.) I never saw him in the dream; I was driving my mother around--though I never really clapped eyes on her either--and the song was playing like a soundtrack:

"She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes,
And she can ruin your faith with her casual lies..."

The woman in the song, she was the Other Woman. My father was having an affair with some uptown girl, and Billy Joel was narrating. Meanwhile, I was taking care of my mother like she couldn't get herself around, and I never actually saw either one of them: my dad in dirty coveralls with a metal lunchbox, in the arms of a woman who smells like rose petals and fine things; my mother, slow and sick, silent in her own mind, unable to care for herself. The fact that my mom was so far gone made my awareness of the affair a real bummer. I don't know how I knew; I couldn't see my father or his woman, eating together, talking and laughing, making love (thank God), but I could feel them. I could feel the affair, I could feel how madly in love my father was with this Other Woman.

Now, none of this is based in my real life experience. As far as I know, my father was always faithful in his marriage. There were lots of reasons why my parents might have sought comfort and affection in from people outside their marriage, but I don't think that either of them actually cheated. Of course, given the m.o. of my family, it's entirely possible that one (or both) of them strayed and kept it from me in order to preserve some false sense of family connection. But I don't know this to be true, so it was a strange dream.

I'd also learned about a friend who'd recently lost faith in her father based on some behaviors and choices that he'd made. So maybe I was just processing some of what she'd told me, and someone was playing Billy Joel somewhere, and I was conflating the song and my father and her father and all kinds of ways fathers can disappoint their daughters.

My therapist says that in our dreams all our characters are versions of our own selves. Recently I've begun to dream about my parents as they look, as opposed to beings or characters that represented my parents but were safer to look at. I've been thinking about marriage a lot lately. My parents' marriage was... complicated. Not happy, but not horrifying. My mother expressed a lot of regret to me those times when her husband was far away. She always finished with, "but I don't regret marrying your father, because then I wouldn't have you!" I'm sure she said this to try and nullify the discontent she was experiencing, but really, it didn't help at all. When I was a girl, I was scared to death that my parents would get divorced. Now, I wouldn't mind it so much; it might give them both the chance to really get to know themselves as individuals, to unearth some truth, after so many years of colluding into a common relationship that required denial of a lot of ugly stuff, as far as the three of us were concerned. I don't know anything about divorce, except that it's expensive and painful and has the potential to be incredibly damaging. And anyway, I doubt that they'd ever get divorced; I think the investment in the reality that they've agreed on is worth more to them than anything else.