Flesh. Sex. Desire. It’s not the only holy trinity, but it’s my favorite one, Buddhist noble truths notwithstanding.
All Buddhist schools agree on the second noble truth—that we suffer because we desire. I know it. There is no way to wiggle out of it. Trust me, I’ve tried. Changing the vocabulary to “attachment” does not work at all. Desire is all about getting attached, clinging like an octopus with suckers (but without the octopus’s elegance) to what we want, be it a beautiful fellow human or a serene state of being.
De sideris, the Latin root of the word “desire,” is wonderfully instructive. In a roundabout way, it provides a Buddhist comment on the impossibility of getting what we want, of ever being completely satisfied, sexually or otherwise. The very meaning of the word also explains why desire is so compelling and magical, why it will always reach us, somehow, from another world, another life. De sideris means “of the stars.”
We think of the stars as far away, and of the light that comes to us from them as dead. Yet the sun is our closest star; we cannot live without it. Desire is a large, hot fact of life. Everyone, Buddhistically inclined or not, has to find a way to handle it, to enjoy the light without going blind or burning to a crisp.
Sex is part and parcel of our humanity. We seem to be able to do almost anything with sex except simply relax with this most obvious and potentially charming fact of life.
I was raised with the Bible, but also, secretly, as a little pagan. So when I think of human flesh, my flesh, my lover’s body, the Earth follows close behind. Adam came from adamah, the Hebrew word for “the dust of the earth.” When I think of some of the best sexual experiences I have ever had, I remember how thin the walls were, or nonexistent, or how the windows were open and the land or water were there, close by, present, part of the act.
After the ragged breath and that sweet, sometimes violent crashing together of two hungry bodies, after the orgasmic focus begins to ebb, something I love (beyond the lover’s body and my own body, and the cracked-up grinning happiness of orgasm) is how the air returns, how I become aware of the air on my skin. The wind might move the edge of the curtains, might actually enter the room and be there with us. It’s the easiest, most natural way to have a threesome.
And if there is no wind, then just the air—that breath outside the body speaking to the breath inside. I become aware of how it moves into the room, over my naked skin, and its arrival seems almost conscious to me. And voices, somewhere outside. our own murmurs. Then birdsong, if there are birds; I hear them again, anew, though the sounds never stopped during the sex, or love-making, or whatever.
Whatever. That catch-all teenage word works well, because sex is many things, and changeable, unpredictable, our own human weather. The calm sea of grass, waving, bending over, bending back. The reluctant or drenching shower of rain. Even the most routine sex wakes me up to the body’s climate. Oh! Oh! Here I am! This is my body!
Does a session of blissful fucking in a tent make the nearby trees and squirrels happy? Does the earth beneath his sweaty back rejoice, and the rivers rush harder when I come?
Sometimes I desire the living, wild flesh of the Earth as much as I desire my lover’s body. In the city where I live, I feel this desire as a low-grade, grinding ache, a lustfulness for that other flesh, the living presence of uncontained nature. It seems to me that such a sensual longing, a yearning for my senses to be awakened, exercised, and expanded, must also be sexual. Yet we never call it that. I do not call it that.
But it is spring now. The natural world shows me how sexual it is, without shame, without coyness. Glorying in the strong light of the sun, the starlight that reaches us all, the sex of trees and birds is literally in the air these days, and in me, too. Buds are swelling up; trees are getting ready to have flagrant congress in public. Soon, flowers will start to pop open, spread themselves for all to see. Flowers are the genitalia of plants. Is that why we love them so much, why we adorn our houses with their colors? Even the mud around my car tires looks great, rich and juicy and wonderfully eatable. If I were a goddess, I too would want to mold it into a beautiful human, breathe life into it, and let nature take its course.
It seems to me that such a sensual longing, a yearning for my senses to be awakened, exercised, and expanded, must also be sexual. Yet we never call it that. I do not call it that.
When I let this body outside for a walk, it awakens; when the air and the wind touch my skin, or when I sit down on slightly wet grass, or in dry, powdery dirt, I feel both calmer and more electrically alive. Walking in a mountain valley, or even a well-treed inner-city park, or on a deserted beach, or swimming in the water, salty or sweet, I usually get a little turned on. Horny. Don’t you?
Maybe not. Maybe you just get hay fever. Each one of us is so different when it comes to the holy trinity. In the mountains, some would be nervous about bears. In the Aegean, where I have swum for hours on end and reached a mystical, physical union with the sea—I could show you my gills, though I won’t show you what I can do with them—some would only think of drowning, and jellyfish. So. What does it for you, then? Make your own list.
I know why I bring the Earth into sex. Because then I can never be without it. The hardest times in my life have been sexless. When I have healed, or mourned, or untangled myself from unhealthy relationships, or when I have been deeply focused on work, celibacy has sometimes been a necessity, a form of spiritual and physical rejuvenation. But even when I have recognized its importance and usefulness, my body has always disliked sexlessness and felt grumpy about it. By accepting the Earth as a lover, I know that as long as I am alive, that sensual, fleshly pleasure can be mine, even if I am alone.
It is impossible to speak honestly of sex and not mention fear. Fear is partly why sex makes us feel so alive, and half-crazed sometimes, and weird, and irritated. Sex disturbs us for many other reasons too, but fear is always in the mix. Touch it—whatever it is for you—and the fear rises like the fine, narrow skull of a snake. Flick, flick. Is it poisonous? Will it kill me? or is it just a garter snake?
It might be a small, niggling fear, an embarrassment, something that makes you roll your eyes at yourself, or at your lover. It might turn the sexiest moment into ridiculous comedy, which is a kind of blessing. Yes: what we fear can also be, and very often is, funny. The body is an honest comic, no matter how cool and wise the mind may be. On all fours, her lovely ass seductively lifted in the air, the most beautiful woman in the world farts, loudly. Once, on the night that the seduction was going to take place, after a meal of long, delicious foreplay (lots of oysters), by the time we got down to our knickers and lots of tongue, there was no longer any way to deny it: we both had food poisoning (lots of oysters). Or, during that longed-for romantic weekend away from the children, you will have enough time and space and a gorgeous hotel bed to lie down in, naked and alone together at last! You find that the hotel bed is wide and big enough to accommodate a huge argument over finances. The sex should be unsalvageable, but you attack it anyway, desperate, needful, furious at that need. As you enter or are entered, you wonder why you ever married anyway. Was it out of lust? Or for money? And now you’re stuck in it, with the products, the joyful, miraculous results of your sex, gorgeous children, left at home. And you’ll be terrified that you could wonder such a thing, in anger, just before you have the best, outraged, breaking-through-outrage sex you’ve had in your life.
Desire is a large, hot fact of life. Everyone, Buddhistically inclined or not, has to find a way to handle it.
Fear is as much a part of being human as sex is. I have just turned forty-four, and am haunted by and fearful of what my mother told me about menopause: It finished sex for her. Done. Gonzo. Never again. “You’re not even interested in masturbation?” I asked her in a disbelieving, whiny voice. She howled at the absurdity of the idea. When I suggested she just needed a good vibrator, she laughed so hard she almost fell off her chair. “Nope,” she said. “Not for me. After the change, I just lost interest. The hot flashes burned the lust right out of me.” She acknowledged that she had even less interest in men messing up her house and leaving their damn socks on the floor, but still, her words frightened me. Her postmenopausal stories made me think of the poet Donald Hall’s beautiful elegies for his wife, who cried out, in the midst of her fatal illness: “No more fucking, no more fucking!”
I fear death for the same reason. If I were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, it’s not the unwritten books or the unlearned languages that my spirit would mourn. After despair for my son growing up motherless and my husband growing old without me, my self-focused grief would be not exactly for my body, but for all the sweet, joyful sex, and the slightly distracted, hurried sex, and the sad sex, and the confused sex that I would no longer be able to have. I know that spirits, if they exist, do not care about such things. But I am not a spirit yet.
When it comes to the body, fear is also larger; it cuts much deeper and harder than daily disappointments and human foibles. The fear that sex brings up is often about horrific losses, the ones we suffered as children, as adolescents, as adults, in abusive relationships, in dysfunctional families, in religions that hated the body, hated sex, hated us, basically, hated the holy trinity, flesh, desire, sex. For some of us, that fear has the power to stop up our throats. Literally. The words are not metaphoric.
For years, I couldn’t speak about what I wanted before, during, or after sex. I couldn’t talk about what I needed, either, about what didn’t feel right. My throat closed up.
The power of speech was gone, and, along with speech, all chance of being heard by the person who happened to be undressing me.
Fear resides, often, in the throat, along with its sibling, shame. Not a trinity, these two, but the difficult, unloved twins of the human psyche, born of damage and capable of creating more. Shame and fear huddle like angry children in the places where they are inflicted, trapped in the subterranean passages of the mind and the body. Most of us have sexual wounds, smaller, larger, healed, still raw, scarred over. If we are persistent and fortunate, we find ways to heal those wounds through compassionate relationship, in spiritual practice, with good therapy. But all of us live in a culture that uses sex flagrantly; cheapens, sells, perverts, even tortures, and hates sexuality; debases the bodies of women and men in various media while using those same images to titillate, to instigate sexual response.
Meanwhile, up on the surface, in our schools and homes, in our politics, in the way we teach and talk to our children, we are often puritanical about our bodies, frightened of the flesh, of desire, of sex. Our culture seeks to control, legislate, manage, obsess about, ignore, silence, and straitjacket the body, even as our teen- age girls feel pressured to hook up with boys they’re not really interested in and send out sexy photos of themselves to prove what everyone should know about everyone else, naturally, from childhood on: that we are all sexual beings, even we who are asexual. Sex is part and parcel of our humanity. We seem to be able to do almost anything with sex except simply relax with this most obvious and potentially charming fact of life.
Somewhere, deep down, under these sensitive acres of skin and warm fat, in the animal layers, our bodies know that sex could be easier and, if we so desired, wilder. We could know both the deep comfort and edgy thrill of sex, with more grace and storminess, as the trees know it, the birds, the flowers, the animals in their springtime cavorting. Like that old song by Cole Porter, “Let’s Do it, Let’s Fall in Love,” sex with or without love could be more fun. It could simply be more. Instead of being difficult, or anxious, or kind of dull, muted by routine and our own unwillingness to let go of our fears and to change our lives. And, from time to time, our positions.
Here I bow again to the springtime Earth as my inspiration and my teacher. I have always loved the bhumi-sparsha mudra in which the Buddha’s right hand is draped over his knee to touch the Earth. He is calling upon the Earth, the soil, to witness his enlightenment. This gesture is full of meaning for me, for us, for the planet. In the oldest extant stories, the Earth that the Buddha touched was embodied in one of the ancient goddesses that predate Buddhism. She was Prithivi, also known as Bhumi, the Source of All, She Who Cannot Be Deceived, the Womb of the World.
Ah-ha! Mother Earth, in the form of a fertility goddess, is present at the very birth of Buddhism. In some of the stories, Prithivi actually rises up and insists upon the Buddha’s purity.
That is what I see in the singing, budding, swelling, lusting, mating, springtime world around me. Prithivi rises again and again, every year, all year, whenever we are ready for her, whenever we want her. No matter how badly we humans treat this planet, she is always ready to speak on our behalf. Spring is her song, not only of life-giving lust and fecundity, but of perfect faith. The purity that she swears by is nondualistic, enormous, with enough space and breath and starlight for every one of us, with our kinkiest kinks, our fear, our shame, our deepest lust, what we dream, what we whisper, what we dare not utter. She cries out, I am your witness, and you are—or you could be—free.