Is sex a spiritual thing? longer version

Many of us are inclined to rebel when someone tells us what to do. We do not always take kindly to being told what is right and wrong behaviour. However, ethical living is part of spiritual healing according to the world’s spiritual traditions. That following a set of rules of conduct is conducive to spiritual growth. How does this apply to sexual relationships?

Infidelity

People may not be concerned about the rights and wrongs of sexual behaviour. They ask:

  • “Isn’t sex a basic drive that needs to be satisfied, just like hunger and thirst?”
  • “Isn’t sexual expression one of our inherent freedoms?”
  • “Isn’t sexuality a way of expressing our unique individuality?”

To answer “yes” to these questions may be correct for some but it is to miss a spiritual principle, for it ignores the idea of a growing union of mature love between two people. There are many reasons for coldness developing between a couple but one of the most damaging tends to be the sense of hurt and distrust in one partner caused by the other becoming sexually drawn to another person.

In Britain these days, people tend to speak as if it were tolerable to have more than one sexual partner as long as you do not deceive anyone. Consequently, a few people have a so-called `open’ relationship. More common is an apparent social norm of `serial monogamy’. In line with this view, one should finish a sexual relationship before taking up with someone else. However many people in a relationship seem to be vulnerable to sexual wandering. A casual attitude to sex can lead us to make light of any indiscretions.

A lot of things in life particularly in the mass media seem to have become sexualised these days – from small girls clothes to cars and even chocolate. It has been suggested that a casual attitude to infidelity can develop as one starts to watch extra-marital passions on TV or at the cinema. It also grows if we linger on the pages of a magazine with sexually provocative advertising, if we fixedly gaze at the figure of an attractive man or woman in a way that arouses sexual feelings or if we engage in any sexual fantasy not involving our partner. I would suggest that people more at risk are those without an interest in any productive activity such as study or business. This can result in a wandering desire. With nothing else to absorb our interest, it is perhaps only natural that our thoughts might turn to sex! But:

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
(Matt 5:28)

“Right action is to abstain from sexual lust”
(The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism)

Noticing an attractive person other than one’s lover is naturally likely to happen most of the time. I would argue one can appreciate good physical looks while at the same time respecting the person. However, there are increasing degrees of disloyalty – for example flirting, spending time with this other person, sharing intimate confidences, lingering kissing or embracing as part of social greetings and farewells, not to mention engaging in physical intimacies when alone together.

Mature Love

Young adults tend to fall in love. Sometimes this is falling in love with love – romanticising the other person, as the embodiment of all we consider to be ideal. Sometimes this is called the `halo’ effect when we notice just one aspect of the other person that particularly appeals such as their bravery or kind-heartedness and become enamoured with just that one aspect regardless of their other characteristics. Sometimes our infatuation is really all about physical attraction, or the perceived glamour, power or wealth of the other person.

We might possibly be trying to fill loneliness or an emotional vacuum with a love relationship. Some psychotherapists have written about this kind of immature love. They say this follows the principle “I love because I am loved.” “ I love you because I need you.” On the other hand they say that mature love follows the principle `I am loved because I love,” “I need you because I love you.”

In addition to giving, mature love implies other basic elements such as concern for the life and growth of the other, responding to their needs, respect for their uniqueness, seeing them as they really are and helping them to grow and unfold in their own ways, for their own sake and not for serving oneself. Seeing one’s partner accurately is possible only when one transcends one’s self-concern and needs, seeing  the other person in the other’s own terms. One needs to listen and to enter and become familiar with the private world of the lover, to live in the other’s life and sense his or her meanings and experiences.

I believe the union of mature love preserves our integrity and paradoxically our individuality. When in intimate love two beings become one in heart and mind, Swedenborg calls it a state of `conjugial love’. By this, he partly means a deeper level of love in which the couple have grown closely together in mutual trust and affection.

Sexually Loving Only One Other Person

We can compare an interest in having more than one sexual relationship with having a desire for intimacy with only one lover. We can distinguish between love of the opposite sex and intimate love of one person of the opposite sex – between on the one hand a roving desire with on the other an exclusive commitment. The latter is a chaste kind of attitude. Chastity is a somewhat antiquated term in today’s world. However, it conveys a sense of purity, innocence, and decency with respect to sexual partnership. It also unfortunately has a connotation of not letting oneself have any fun, and of prudishness, but this is not what Swedenborg means by the word. A chaste attitude for him is not to be confused with sexual abstinence. Rather it is primarily concerned with what is going on in a person’s heart and mind – with the purity and cleanness of a person’s feelings and thoughts. A chaste attitude is a deep desire for a one to one relationship solely with one other person.

In other words, sexual desire is not an unchaste thing in itself. However relationships of a sexual nature with someone other than one’s spouse involves a disregard of the trust and intimacy that has been shared in marriage that is extremely hurtful to the innocent partner. The idea of extra-marital relationships is sometimes softened to such terms as: `fooling around’, `sleeping around’, `flings’, `affairs’ and `dalliances’; suggesting that infidelity can be guilt free and harms no one. If people are not looking for a conjugial relationship, then it is possible to understand how they might come to believe in the myth that extra-marital relationships are harmless.

Conjugial love 

The aim within conjugial love is a closer linking of minds and profound linking of lives in intimate friendship and love – the essence of a harmonious long-lasting personal and valued sexual relationship. On the other hand using another person as a sex object demonstrates a complete lack of true caring. It is not showing love to someone as a person, but simply using their body as a source of excitement, physical pleasure and perhaps conquest. Why cause hurt to one’s partner by carrying on with someone else? Loose sexual conduct is likely to tie in with self-justification and a lack of interest in the spiritual healing dynamic of conjugial love.

According to Swedenborg the origin of conjugial love is spiritual. The conjugial state mirrors the state that Swedenborg terms, the `heavenly marriage’ within a person. This is a harmony between feeling and ideas when a desire for what is good matches a wise thought. These do not harmonise for example when we are feeling resentful towards a workmate whilst realising we are being unfair. Another example is blaming a neighbour for a problem in the garden when one knows this to be unjustified. The spiritual state of the heavenly marriage can be present within even a single person who has no close relationships for this is the basis of finding the meaning of life. Such a person would be ready to receive the spirit of conjugial love if a suitable partner becomes available.

Gender

Much controversy surrounds the subject of male and female gender roles. I believe neither sex is superior to the other – just different. Modern feminism is less concerned these days about proving women can do what men can do. Instead, it places more emphasis on feminine values and interests. We do well what we are interested in. This might be successfully helping to create a collaborative mood within a professional meeting or calm atmosphere within the home. Women tend to give importance to feelings and relationship whereas men tend to act in terms of rules, and what they judge to be right.

Thus the sexes complement each other according to their tendency to have different interests or as Swedenborg would say what they each love.

An objective stance is thinking about the external aspect of things whereas a subjective one is seeing things from a personal angle. Men have no exclusive hold over objectivity in their thinking but they tend to be more interested in this stance than women. Neither have women any exclusive orientation towards subjectivity but they have a tendency to be drawn to this approach than men.  In common parlance we speak of feminine intuition.

Partnership

In my view these differences are the basic reason why an erotic interest usually develops between the sexes; why male and female get together. They say opposites attract. When a man and woman are in harmony as to what they think and feel, do and say, then a conjugial partnership can potentially be formed. Each partner can develop to be a different side of the same coin; growing together they may become as one. The husband tends to love having ideas, ideals and projects to accomplish, whilst his wife tends to love nurturing and embodying them in their relationships together and with others.

Each individual sees their happiness in the life of their partnership. When the couple are devoted to each other and growing together spiritually, they increasingly act as together as one unit – they are working in harmony and finding spiritual healing. Seeing their ideas and feelings reflected in each other they are then drawn away from self-orientation. As far as their ideas and feelings are good, they receive heavenly innocence, peace, and tranquillity.

“Conjugial love is directed to and shared with one person of the other sex. Love directed to and shared with several persons is natural love, for man has this in common with animals and birds, which are natural creatures. But conjugial love is spiritual, special and proper to human beings, because human beings were created, and are therefore born, to become spiritual”.

(Swedenborg. Conjugial Love: section 48)

Extracted from the book Heart, Head and Hands by Stephen Russell-Lacy