Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sex and Metaphysics

It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that we humans are obsessed with sex, but only a bit. The question is: Why? Yes, sex is necessary for reproduction and, in consequence, sexual feelings are very strong and insistent. Sex is often, though not always, pleasurable.

But that’s not enough. Oh, it may be enough for evolutionary psychologists, but they don’t demand much of their psychology. Even at that, the biological rules of sex are, still, a bit obscure. The cultural games we play with them, they are infinitely varied.

Take that Shakespeare sonnet I’ve been exploring, 129, The expense of spirit. That’s about sex. But it’s also about desire, pleasure, guilt, will and reason. All of those things intermingled. It’s about metaphysics.

There’s the rub: How’d sex become metaphysical? Just what is the knowledge in carnal knowledge?

Consider this Wikipedia passage about Tantric ritual; notice all the technical terms (in Sanscrit):
When enacted as enjoined by the Tantras, the ritual culminates in a sublime experience of infinite awareness for both participants. Tantric texts specify that sex has three distinct and separate purposes—procreation, pleasure, and liberation. Those seeking liberation eschew frictional orgasm for a higher form of ecstasy, as the couple participating in the ritual lock in a static embrace. Several sexual rituals are recommended and practiced. These involve elaborate and meticulous preparatory and purificatory rites. The sexual act itself balances energies coursing within the pranic ida and pingala channels in the subtle bodies of both participants. The sushumna nadi is awakened and kundalini rises upwards within it. This eventually culminates in samadhi, wherein the respective individual personalities and identities of each of the participants are completely dissolved in a unity of cosmic consciousness.
What are they talking about? Liberation — from what? Cosmic consciousness — what’s that? What’s this about dissolving? Whatever this is, it isn’t monkey glands on overdrive, it’s something else. Those Tantra adepts are using biology for something that transcends biology. But what?

‘Transcend’ — that’s a term that comes up often in such discussions, along with ecstasy, union, dissolution. All are common to the discourse of mysticism as well. Sex and mysticism, two peas in a pod — whoops! there’s a biological metaphor. Mystics use sexual metaphors, and sexuality drives even the prosaic among us to the edge of mysticism.

* * * * *

I’ve got two guesses. One: While ecstasy and transcendence are available anytime, anywhere, while doing anything — so sayeth the Zen masters ZAP! — they’re most likely to sneak up on us during sex. If so, then, one would like to know why.

My other guess is not unrelated to the first, but it’s more complicated.

The basic circuits for sexuality, like other biological drives, is located deep in the core of the brain in the limbic system. Except for sexuality, those drives are active from birth. But much of the brain is quite immature at birth, especially the neocortex, which is phylogenetically the newest part of the brain. And it’s where our ‘higher’ capacities are more or less localized. All the other emotional and motivational equipment becomes integrated into the ever more sophisticated patterns of thought, desire, and action that are realized in the maturing cortex.

Along comes adolescence and WHAM! the whole system becomes unglued. All of a sudden distinctly new feelings and motivations have to be integrated into one’s repertoire of thoughts and actions. Even if you grow up in a culture that more or less “makes room” for sexuality, it still comes as a shock. Knowing it's going to happen, play-acting at more adult behavior when you're a child, that doesn't really prepare you for having to deal with a whole new hormonal riot. What’s new and confusing is the riot itself.

Now, let’s put sexuality aside for a moment and look at cognitive development. Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist, worked out the theory of stages on cognitive development starting with sensorimotor, then pre-operational, concrete operations, and then, at adolescence, formal operations. Formal operations allows for abstract thought, thoughts about god and country, but also mathematics and philosophy.

And that leads to my second guess. Sex becomes intertwined with metaphysics because our sexual impulses become active during the same period in development that abstract thought emerges. For reasons I've never really attempted to work out, I suspect that if the capacity for abstract thought becomes established before hormonal puberty, there's a chance that the new feelings and motives will be treated as foreigners, strangers that have taken refuge in one's own body.

And that's what's so freaky about sex. None of our feelings and emotions are under control of the will. But they’re all familiar to us as we move into adolescence. We’re used to them. They have their homes in our lives, their paths and hangouts. We know them even if we cannot control them.

Sexuality is a stranger.

In that strangeness it, more than any other behavioral system, links our most basic and primitive capacities with our most abstract. At once act and thought, deed and desire, it is metaphysics in life.
Note: These two posts aren't quite about sex. But they're in the same neighborhood: bundling, romantic love.

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