sensuality and awakening

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Waking up next to a child, feeling their warm breath. The scent of your sweetheart’s shirt as you pick it up from the floor and put it into the laundry basket. Jasmine wafting through the living room window on a hot day. Warm, sudsy water on slippery dishes. Hundreds of flowers are thrown at our feet every day.

Religion sometimes breaks the world down into two parts; the temporal world of pleasure and pain- the world that is constantly dissolving and rearranging itself, and the absolute world of meditation- the vastness we enter when we become deeply quiet or during peak moments. Pleasure and pain come and go, are always dissolving. There is loss, hunger and frustration in this relative realm as time relentlessly marches on. The vastness does not contain any of this messy stuff of life; birth, death, disease, only undifferentiated bliss. These worlds live side by side, superimposed upon one another.

Our Zen patriarchs invite us to be open to awakening under all circumstances. Sengtsan wrote,

The Way is perfect, like vast space,
Where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject,
That we do not see the true nature of things.

Some, many, advocates from various religions would have us believe that it is best to avoid worldly pleasures, since pleasure has the ability to seduce us into believing its illusionary nature is real and that we can have some control over it. It’s easy to become attached to the pleasant, we all do. Yet the vastness also has the power to seduce us into the same sort of illusory attachment. I remember a retreat I attended where we practiced deep concentration meditation late into the night. At about midnight the alarm on my watch went off. I hadn’t set the watch and, to this day, have no idea how the alarm got set. This hasn’t happened before or since (I suspect my former teacher, Annagarika Dhamma Dinna, returned from the grave to impart one more lesson. She had a great sense of humor). A woman who was deep in meditation exploded in rage when the alarm went off. For her, the bliss of silence instantly turned into rage, like a match thrown on gasoline soaked papers. For others, attachment to emptiness, to the bliss of deep meditation, can take the form of greed, greed for retreats, greed for quiet. Still others may use meditation as a way to avoid messy problems at home. Attachment to the vastness can be as much of a danger, and as detrimental to our well being, as attachment to sensual pleasure.

When you think about it, it’s clear that the problem is not a product of the sensual world verses the world of meditative absorption. The problem lies in attachment…to anything. Any time we want things to be other than the way they are we are running away from the moment. This brings to mind the koan where two monks are on a pilgrimage. They come to a stream where a beautiful woman needs to cross but is unable to do so. One of the monks lifts the woman up and deposits her on the other side of the stream. The two monks go on their way and after awhile the second monk says, disgusted at his friend’s behavior, “How could you hold that woman. You know we monks are not supposed to even look at a woman let along lift one up and carry her.” The other monk says, “I let her go hours ago. Are you still carrying her?”

Separating sensuality and spirituality then putting one above the other has led to some unintended cultural consequences. Distain of sensuality, distain propagated by a surprising number of religions, has trickled down to the householder engendering feelings of shame, feelings of not being worthy of awakening. Sadly, the lion’s share of this shame has fallen on the heads of women and children since women and children are intimately associated with sensuality. Children live in a world of wonder. All of life, its smells, its sights, its sounds, are fresh and exciting to a child. Women also live in a sensual world. She makes love and the world emerges from between her legs, she nurses her baby with her breast and sustains life on Earth with her hands in the rich, fragrant soil, she creates alchemy in the kitchen. This does not, however, mean that they cannot live simultaneously in an awakened state. But for those who need to believe that spirituality is at odds with sensuality a woman’s life is deemed less spiritual. To make matters worse her body is blamed for the lust it evokes in those who can’t have her, or choose not to have what her body offers. Life itself is on trial here. Sadly, as valuable as religion is in so many ways, it has made a grave error in judgment in this area. If we truly want to be pro-Earth and all that entails, we need to rethink the interface of spirituality and sensuality.

Being a mother and homemaker is one sensual activity after another. Actually, being alive, fully alive, is a sensual endeavor for anyone, man, woman or child. Issa writes:

Summer’s first melon
Lies firmly hugged to the breast
Of a sleeping child

Rather than teaching women and householders that in order to find awakening they need to leave their home, they need to stop making art and eat only to for sustenance, it might be a more fruitful tact to teach us how we can find awakening within all the activities of our sensual lives. Life is wonderful when we are take each moment as it is and let it go when it is over. This is a real challenge! Embracing the pleasure, the pain, the bliss of emptiness- and then letting it go, over and over, day after day.

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