I was 18 when I read E.M. Foster’s novel Howard’s End and it was one of the most powerful books I had ever read. It was as if he were speaking to me, was speaking my own thoughts and feelings. It was as if he were me. It was uncanny. And it was this quote that resonated most with me. The idea within the novel that it was connections that matter – not status or wealth or possessions, but human connections. And that one has to live as a whole person, to connect with all of oneself, not split off into the ‘monk’ or the ‘beast’ but to let those energies coexist and nourish a total sense of being.
As a teen still in the closet, it spoke to me of the fear of sex and intimacy, the tendency to see it as the beast, the desire to be good, to gravitate to the ‘light’ of spirituality away from the ‘darkness’ of sensual desire. For a teenager living in the shadow of denial about his sexuality how ironic that it was a man from 100 years earlier, who had lived in the same shadow for much of his life, who should speak so eloquently to me in my place of fear of the need to open to all of who I was. I heard and it spoke to my heart, but the lesson didn’t take effect at once and in some ways I am only realising now the significance of what he was saying. Coming to sexual maturity in the1980s didn’t exactly help me to open to all of my being! The sex education I had at that same time was about HIV and AIDS and as I slowly began to realise that I wanted to have sex with men this was fused in my mind with the thought that sex would kill me.
Reading ‘Straight Jacket, How to Be Gay and Happy’ I was struck that the author had the same experience as a teen in the ’80s: seeing the tomb stone safe sex ads for HIV and taking away the lesson that sex kills. I still remember the fear after my first sexual encounter, and the first of many trips to the GUM clinic to be tested, convinced that I was now going to die.
It’s hardly surprising then that after a few years of being out and tentatively exploring my love and sex life my interest in Buddhism and spirituality fused with a subtle inner homophobia that had never been addressed and was able to use my genuine commitment to the spiritual path as a screen to create the duality of the monk and the beast, as I then attempted to push the ‘beast’ underground through 12 years of celibacy, culminating in 6 years of literally being a monk! I wonder how many of us in our own ways have done this? Perhaps not become celibate but found our own way to split off the monk and the beast: going to one or other extreme, but never finding that middle way that celebrates them both?
Even on leaving the monastery there was still a sense that the real spiritual work was to be done in a solitary retreat, that living here in London I was selling out to my ‘base’ desires for sex, a relationship, a man. But why create this duality? This idea that there is the spiritual – pure and undefiled, and the worldly – tainted by desire and corporeality. It probably wasn’t helped by having grown up with one of the few Medieval judgement murals still in existence in a British Parish church, showing the blessed and the damned! It certainly fed my child mind with the idea that one is either good and saved, or bad and damned. It’s not entirely clear in the image below as part of the mural is damage, but on the right are the souls being dragged into a the gaping mouth of Hell, whilst to the left the souls of the saved go up to Heaven. How often do we carry this sense of the damned and the saved with someone sitting in Judgement on us?
Last week I went to a presentation organised by Dean Street for a new organisation in London. It’s been set up as an affiliate of a group running events throughout the United States and other countries. It’s run by a group of young gay men, and one woman. Its intention is to find new ways to raise awareness of how to live a fulfilled and healthy life as a a gay man, to enjoy sex but to be aware of how to stay healthy and safe. As such it celebrates the enjoyment of sex, but seeks to promote awareness of the options around for staying healthy. It was so refreshing to hear the young men talking as they explained what they were setting up, to hear them say without shame, “I love sex” but to then want to explore how to share a message with all gay men, but especially younger men of how to explore their enjoyment in a way that minimises the risk to their health and mental well being. It made me think of my own struggles and how I wished I could have met others who could have given such a sex positive message when I was in my 20s, to counteract the shame I had taken in as a child and teenager.
And this is not just about having good sex. As Dr Downs expresses so well in ‘The Velvet Rage’, if a core part of my self identity, my sexual drive, is seen as being wrong or tainted then in effect I believe myself to be wrong or tainted and the choices and actions I perform will grow out of this self-belief. I may see myself as the beast, never able to be good enough to be the monk, and so choose a path that takes me into suffering through low self-esteem and lack of self-worth. Or I try desperately to prove I am not the beast and in my own way be the perfect, good gay. If I believe I am unlovable, how will I ever open to anyone to love me? And if someone does – then they must be a fool to love someone so bad, and so are not worth trying to get to know further. Instead I will chase those who give me the message that meets my inner truth: the ones who do not really want me, who treat me with some form of disdain, for this, on some subtle level, is how I feel I deserve to be treated. And if I think on some subtle level gay sex is wrong, how can I love another man who is so flawed? All we can have is passing encounters.
It is for each of us to find what we want in our love and sex lives so I am not saying we should all fit one model – but to have sex without shame, whether monogamous, polyamorous or casual or not at all (but out of a free choice and a deep sense of contentment rather than due to shame) is something I believe will bring a greater sense of self worth to us all and open us to loving the other men we are meeting along the way, connecting from the heart and not only the groin. This starts with learning to love ourselves and so we continue in the group to explore how to open to embracing all of who we are, to let the monk and the beast no longer fight but embrace and give us all of their energies. As part of that exploration the Impulse initiative may provide some of us with support and a place to meet others who share this wish. To find out more about Impulse London click here