(transcript of live presentation by Irwin Kula)
Hello, I鈥檓 Irwin Kula and welcome to 鈥淪imple Wisdom.鈥?nbsp; There is so much choice and so much change in our lives that sometimes it鈥檚 difficult to know exactly what decision to make and where to stand. 鈥淪imple Wisdom鈥?brings the insights of an ancient tradition to the challenges of daily life to help us make life more meaningful and more creative. Today we鈥檙e going to talk about an area that we spend more time thinking about than any other area. In fact, some social scientists say we think about this area every 10 seconds. The area is sex. There aren鈥檛 too many areas that we have more ambivalence about 鈥?around which there is more emotional turbulence. We鈥檙e going to talk about what fascinates us about sexuality, a bit about what makes human sexuality unique, and then we鈥檙e going to talk about the different attitudes 鈥?two primary attitudes that we bring to sexuality which, because they are polar opposites, actually create more problems. Then I鈥檓 going to offer a new metaphor to understand sexuality 鈥?a new/old metaphor 鈥?that just may transform sex from sex to at least conscious sex to perhaps sacred sex.
Now I have to be very honest 鈥?I am a little uncomfortable at the outset of this show and a little embarrassed. I鈥檓 used to starting a show with some personal exercise, but I was afraid to actually transform this into a sex show. Also, there actually is a constant debate between good taste and exhibitionism and I don鈥檛 want to blush too much, but if I鈥檓 silent -- in fact if leaders are silent about sexuality 鈥?that silence generates more problems and more troubles and we all know there are significant troubles. We live in the most hypersexualized environment in the history of the world 鈥?magazines, advertisements, movies. Everything is out there to try to evoke sexual feelings and arouse sexual feelings.
I have a 14 year old daughter and an 11 year old daughter. With my older daughter, there are times that she gets ready to go out and is out the door and I don鈥檛 know exactly what to say. She鈥檚 a great kid and I am not a prude, but I don鈥檛 know 鈥?should I say: pull down your shirt 鈥?or pull up your pants? And she鈥檚 a great kid. There is so much sexuality in the air. But, at the same time that we live in the most hypersexualized environment in the history of the world, we have more sexual dysfunction than ever before. Every poll says people are unhappy with their sexual lives 鈥?too much sex, too little sex, sex that isn鈥檛 enjoyable. What鈥檚 going on? I think we need to get a handle on this.
There is a lot of wisdom in ancient traditions about sexuality. I鈥檒l tell you the story from the Talmud which is the classic Jewish text. It鈥檚 about two men, Rav and Rav Kahana. Rav Kahana was Rav鈥檚 student. Well, Rav one night was making love with his wife and he heard something under his bed. He looked under his bed and there was Rav Kahana and he said: 鈥淲hat are you doing under my bed?鈥?nbsp; Rav Kahana said: 鈥淚鈥檓 learning Torah, I鈥檓 learning wisdom from my master.鈥?/FONT>1 You see, there is a lot of wisdom to be learned from the sexual relationship. Now I鈥檓 not Rav and expect no one under my bed, but I think there is simple wisdom that we can bring to the issue of sexuality that can really make a difference in our lives.
Let鈥檚 start by talking about how sex for human beings really is different from all the rest of the creatures in the world and that鈥檚 why it鈥檚 so complicated. Human beings are the only people that can get sexually aroused without it being directly connected to being ready to be pregnant. In other words, we鈥檙e the only creature in the world in which biology is not the only reason we have sex. A pretty way of saying that is: we make love. Animals don鈥檛 make love. The birds and the bees, they do it by the numbers 鈥?by the seasons 鈥?or as my kids say: the birds and the bees and the monkeys in the trees 鈥?all of them have sex by the numbers and seasons. We make love. We have sex and it becomes opportunities for love and intimacy and pleasure. That鈥檚 not how animals are.
We鈥檙e the only living creature that makes love face to face 鈥?[and] you know why: because we care about who our partner is. But then animals never betray each other 鈥?animals never lie 鈥?animals never use sex as a weapon 鈥?animals never use sex as a way of control. Human beings do that because we interpret sex 鈥?we give meanings to sex 鈥?and once you鈥檙e in a meaning-making activity, one has so much power. We all know [this meaning-making quality of sex] 鈥?when you鈥檙e at climax time, you know how sometimes you say: 鈥淥h, God.鈥?nbsp; By the way, it鈥檚 very important 鈥?the things that you say when you鈥檙e beginning to lose a little sense of self mean something. We don鈥檛 say: 鈥淥h, toaster鈥?even though it鈥檚 warm 鈥?we say: 鈥淥h, God鈥?because deep down we know it鈥檚 deeply touching something in our body and our psyche, in response we make meaning from sex. Sex can be the most affirming 鈥?most confirming 鈥?most renewing 鈥?most exhilarating 鈥?most powerful activity we engage in and we all know that. We have been in sexual encounters and sexual relationships that have been so profoundly affirming, but precisely because it鈥檚 so profoundly affirming it is also potentially incredibly exploitative. [There is] no activity in which we can get degraded more, no activity by which we can be hurt more. No activity can harm us more. The most confirming and affirming and the most exploitative and degrading -- and it鈥檚 our choice. So we need some wisdom.
Well, first let鈥檚 look at two different attitudes that are really competing in contemporary society 鈥?that I believe cause tremendous damage to our ability to have healthy sexual lives. The first is what I call the sin school or the school of sin and we and we are all familiar with this school. Most religious communities deal with the school of sin. You know -- that sex is dirty. Sex is taboo. It goes back a long time to Plato who separated body and soul 鈥?body and spirit -- and said: 鈥淭he material 鈥?the body -- is bad because it鈥檚 going to erode. It鈥檚 going to deteriorate and anything that deteriorates can鈥檛 really be worthwhile. By the way, the school of sin generally is very repressive on women 鈥?that鈥檚 one school. But we have another school. I call it the sex as salvation school. Sex answers all the questions. Now part of it is a result of the post-Freudian sexual liberation of the 1960鈥檚 鈥?from which we learned a lot. I wouldn鈥檛 give back any of what we learned. We learned about sexual pleasure and technique. We did away with a lot of the taboos regarding sexual pleasure. Women鈥檚 sexuality became something that we could talk about. Sexual harassment became something that we recognized needed to be addressed and punished. So many good things came out of the post-Freudian and 1960 sexual revolution. But, in the end, that school seemed to suggest that sex, as long as it is between consenting adults, has no cost. We know in our generation that sex does have cost and I鈥檓 not only talking about disease. It has tremendous psychic implications and costs.
So we鈥檙e caught between these two places that either sex is dirty and taboo which generates an ethics of fear, or that sex has no costs as long as people agree and so you don鈥檛 really need any norms. Well, it seems to me that one is repressive and one is empty and deep down we know that, so we have to begin to develop a new sexual ethic. We need a language to talk about it and it鈥檚 very difficult. We need an ethic that is not generated by the fear of the sex is sin school and we need an ethic that, unlike the sex as salvation school, is not oblivious to the genuine power of sexuality to alter and hurt. We have to recognize the power and not be afraid. We need what I call an ethics of expressiveness regarding sexuality.
We鈥檝e been through the ethics of restraint and it doesn鈥檛 really work. It hurts us. We鈥檝e been through no or minimal ethics and that hurts us. What about an ethics of expressiveness? I think a key to this is understanding the most ancient Jewish wisdom word for sex. The word in Hebrew is yodeah2 鈥?to know. You remember the first time you learned that word meant sex 鈥?maybe you were in 5th or 6th grade. So and so knew so and so and you giggled. By the way, the tragedy is in 6th grade today they are actually having sex. To know someone 鈥?this means that sexuality is the most intense form of communication.. Sex is not only a body experience. There is no more powerful form of knowing about and communicating with someone else than through sexual relationship because it touches both the conscious and the unconscious. It touches both body and psyche and we know that. It鈥檚 so potentially affirming that even if you have a sexual relationship outside a genuine relationship you can feel affirmed. That鈥檚 why teenage girls desperately in need of love have sex -- because it鈥檚 so affirming to be held and caressed that it鈥檚 not just a body experience (even when it is). Sex is never just sex as it鈥檚 an emotional, psychological, spiritual experience.
Sexuality as a form of knowledge and communication means that the dynamic of sexual intercourse is more than just a biological release 鈥?it鈥檚 more than turning on 鈥?it鈥檚 more than getting off 鈥?it鈥檚 tuning in. How deeply we can tune in. Erotic power comes from tuning in and revealing that which is usually unexposed. Erotic power comes from exposing that which is usually revealed, and the more you reveal that which is not ordinarily revealed the more erotic it is. Here鈥檚 the thing and this is an ethics of expressiveness: You can鈥檛 only reveal one part of who you are to have good sex. I鈥檓 all for exposure. I鈥檓 all for revealing and unveiling. But the key to good sex and conscious sex and sacred sex is that you reveal yourself on multiple levels. You have to reveal the body level, but you [also] have to reveal the intellectual level and you have to reveal the emotional level. And the more levels you reveal 鈥?the more dynamic the erotic power.
Actually, there was a study done -- I don鈥檛 remember by which university, some southern university. They took a bunch of college students and they had them view pornography for about three or four hours for a few weeks and here is what they found: they were measuring the physical and emotional responses. After the first couple of days, there was no discernible change in the emotional and physical responses and so they had to ratchet up more extreme versions of the pornography. In other words, it鈥檚 true 鈥?erotic power comes from how many levels you鈥檙e going to reveal and not reveal about yourself. If you just reveal the physical, eventually -- and it doesn鈥檛 take so long -- you get bored. That鈥檚 why sexual spontaneity with new people is so attractive -- it gives us the illusion of more and more erotic power. Now it is, but only in one dimension and therefore easily burns out, but genuine erotic power happens when you are revealing yourself across the board, across multiple levels of who you are -- and that is scary. In this culture, it鈥檚 even more scary to reveal yourself emotionally than it is to reveal your body.
So what do we do? What are the steps to try to help us reveal across the board? First of all, it鈥檚 simply to know that 鈥?[no matter] how many levels of development we have 鈥?nbsp; we are always communicating across the board. The Egeret HaKodesh by Nachmanides which is like a Jewish sex manual 鈥?called the Holy Letter 鈥?has a whole range of advice regarding this.3 One of the first things that Nachmanides says is that it鈥檚 important to have communication regarding desire itself. Think about it 鈥?how often do you talk about your desire with your partner? We all have rhythms of desire, so we need to be able to talk about that. When we鈥檙e into it and when we鈥檙e not, and you know different environments produce different kinds of interest. When I have a very, very difficult week at work 鈥?maybe I have had a challenging board meeting, a lot of teaching, I鈥檝e traveled a lot 鈥?sometimes I come home and I鈥檓 just not in the mood, but because we have no language to talk about that 鈥?to say no actually hurts the other person, and when we hurt the other person the whole thing begins to deteriorate. What if we knew up front we could speak about our shifting desire and the different rhythms of our desire.
There is another issue at the heart of sexuality, that is destabilizing if not frightening, that we need to be able to talk about and that is how great sex does swallow up the self 鈥?our self dissolves. That鈥檚 why an orgasm is very often compared to death 鈥?our self 鈥?the boundaries get swept away. But you know what? Because we鈥檙e both connected to people and also separate individuals, as we get swept away we want to come back to ourselves. And here鈥檚 the popular version of that: somebody makes love and then generally [at least in the movies] it鈥檚 a man 鈥?man makes love and what does he do? He turns over and goes to sleep or smokes a cigarette. Part of it is a lack of sensitivity, but part of it is actually central to who we are as human beings. There is a dance in great/conscious sex between being overwhelmed, letting go and being swept away 鈥?to have all the boundaries of the self dissolve, to feel as one and coming back. And unless we can communicate that each of us has different depths of letting go and different paces of coming back, we actually hurt each other. If the dance dies 鈥?if either side of the dance dies 鈥?good sex dies, whether [it is] the side of surrender or the side of separateness. Too much surrender creates bad sex, too much separateness creates no sex 鈥?so we have to communicate.
Another thing that Nachmanides says we have to communicate about is what gives us pleasure. Pleasure is central to the psyche. When we know what turns someone on, it means we care about them, and since the erotic power of sexuality is to know a person鈥檚 uniqueness 鈥?to know what turns people on is part of knowing what鈥檚 unique about them. When someone knows what turns us on, how does that make us feel? So Nachmanides says you need to communicate about that. You need to communicate about frequency. The classic Jewish wisdom text, the Talmud, has an amazing list of how many times you should have sex based on what jobs and occupations you have.4 An independent person every day, for laborers twice a week, a camel driver has sex every 30 days, sailors once every six months . You know why? It鈥檚 very interesting. Because it would be a burden on people in light of their jobs. That鈥檚 a rather old-fashioned understanding of things, but think about what is the relationship between what we do 鈥?the environments we find ourselves in both psychologically and physically -- and how they affect our readiness and frequency for making love. By the way, in case you鈥檙e interested, rabbis have to have sex quite often and on the Sabbath. Obviously the document was written by rabbis, but actually all of these things become critically important in talking about sexuality.
Nachmanides says another thing. He says that foreplay is central 鈥?foreplay indicates concern about the other. You鈥檙e not rushing 鈥?you care and last which sounds almost contemporary. He advises this to a man and it is probably more of a male problem. Men are praised for showing control so that their partner has an orgasm first . Imagine if we just first of all spoke about these issues 鈥?if we opened up these conversations this way about what our emotional lives are really like.
Now I want to give you two practices on sexuality. I promise you if you incorporate these two practices into your sexual lives, within a couple of months your sexual life will move at least from whatever it is to good and from good to better to conscious to sacred 鈥?if you keep all these practices. The first is what I call Sabbath sex and I don鈥檛 mean having sex on the Sabbath, although that鈥檚 not a bad idea. I mean creating Sabbath time to have sex. There鈥檚 a time for a quickie, but that鈥檚 not what we are in need of these days. I want to tell you a story about Sabbath sex and I hope my parents don鈥檛 kill me. I have five younger brothers. On Saturday afternoon, we would come home from synagogue, we would eat lunch, and my parents would go up to their bedroom. I was the oldest of six 鈥?so my job was to take care of the rest of the kids on the downstairs level. I was about nine or ten years old and I don鈥檛 know what they were doing 鈥?all I know is that my parents had private time on Shabbat afternoon and it wasn鈥檛 until years later that I understood what they were doing, but here鈥檚 what I did know. On Saturday evening when they came out for the end of the Sabbath to start the new week, they were the most profoundly loving parents and Saturday nights were some of the most glorious times in our home. That鈥檚 what Sabbath sex is. Now Sabbath sex could be Wednesday afternoon, but it takes time 鈥?it takes a nice meal 鈥?it takes the right loving words 鈥?Sabbath sex.
The second practice is what I call the rhythm of anticipation. What I invite you to do 鈥?it seems hard, but it鈥檚 amazingly easy and a phenomenal practice 鈥?is to create a set time every month in which you are unapproachable to each other. I don鈥檛 care when it is. In some traditional circles it may be around a woman鈥檚 cycle, but it does not have to be 鈥?that鈥檚 not the issue. The issue is to create frameworks in which people are unapproachable to each other 鈥?this creates desire. The pop version of that is absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, you know what? It isn鈥檛 just the heart. Create those moments. It could be three days during the month. Not only does it create anticipation, but it also opens up space for other ways of developing identity. If I can鈥檛 have sex with you, I have to talk to you. If I can鈥檛 use sex to avoid the argument that we had a week ago, I have to talk out the argument and I wind up actually exposing and revealing fuller dimensions of who I am and, again, the erotic power is heightened as erotic power is in revealing our uniqueness as human beings. That鈥檚 what really makes it erotic and, if you do that, then what鈥檚 assured is the mutuality and the reliability and the trust of a relationship that allows you to have great sex.
If you keep some of these things in mind, here鈥檚 what you鈥檒l learn and here is what you鈥檒l taste. The rabbis say that in the World to Come there鈥檒l be three things that you鈥檒l recognize from this world: one is the Sabbath, the second is the warmth of the summer, and the last one is lovemaking. That鈥檚 鈥淪imple Wisdom.鈥?nbsp; I鈥檓 Irwin Kula. Thank you very much and I look forward to seeing you next time.