Karma-Free Sex

Sex. What a compelling topic!


As a spiritual teacher, whether I’m giving a lecture or leading a retreat, whenever the subject comes up, a very particular form of focused attention immediately takes over the room. Suddenly everyone is listening very closely, hanging on my every word! Why? Because everybody wants to know the secret. What secret? The secret to how to handle the sexual impulse—the wild beast of our evolutionary heritage that is alive and kicking within us all.

I always find this so ironic, because we’re supposed to be the most sexually liberated generation ever. Since the cultural revolution almost half a century ago, most of us have experienced unprecedented freedom in relation to our own sexuality. I know I did. It has been a sex-positive, go-for-it, don’t-worry-be-happy, if-it-feels-good-do-it world for all of postmodernity’s children. But what’s so ironic is that all the freedom and sex-positive morals haven’t, for the most part, made us much wiser as to how to handle the beast. Why is it that with more freedom to experiment and more actual experience we still tend to be so confused, insecure, and victimized when it comes to sexuality? Why is it that when the wild one awakens, so few of us are deeply trustworthy?

Oops! . . . I have to be careful here, or I’ll sound like a square. Sex, among the spiritual crowd, is definitely a sacred cow. If anyone dares to question whether sex is all it’s cracked up to be or to suggest that it may be dangerous and complex terrain to navigate, they are almost automatically labeled as being an unenlightened, sex-negative moralist. It’s almost like daring to question whether God exists when talking to a religious fundamentalist.

Well, I’m definitely not sex-negative—I’ve been happily married for more than twenty years. But as a spiritual teacher and cultural critic who looks deeply into the nature of the human experience with unwavering idealism and uncompromising realism, I can say one thing with enormous confidence: Few areas of life are more of a source of karma, confusion, and mistrust than sex. So whenever I hear ordinary people or spiritual authorities speak in a cavalier way about this most complex and confusing topic, it’s obvious to me that either they don’t know what they are talking about or they haven’t looked very deeply into their own experience or anyone else’s.

We can look at this subject in different ways. Habitually, we tend to look at sex from the inside, so to speak, to see it purely from the perspective of the subjective experience—biological, emotional, psychological, and spiritual—of the individual. To put it simply, we see it through the lens of how it makes us feel. But there’s another way to look at sex, which in postmodern culture is much less familiar: We can look at it from the outside, which means we look at the long- and short-term consequences of sexual engagement for real people, in real time.

What we will find, if we take this perspective, is that sexual pleasure, emotional intimacy, and spiritual thrills never come for free. Even as much as I, being a healthy, virile male, would like it to be otherwise, the simple truth is that if we’re not extremely careful about how we engage with the beast, we will probably create karma in the long run. No matter how much short-term happiness, pleasure, or freedom we may taste, when the fireworks are over, the complex realities of our emotional and psychological selves have to absorb the multidimensional consequences of sexual intimacy, both positive and negative.

The traditional definition of enlightenment means coming to the end of karma. I have always defined karma in a particular way, as the suffering we cause to self or other when we act out of ignorance or selfishness. Ideally, therefore, the enlightened individual would no longer be creating karma, and to not create karma in the sexual arena is nothing less than a supreme spiritual attainment in our day and age!

As a teacher, I’ve always preferred to look at this particular subject from the outside. If we have spiritual aspirations, if our goal is enlightenment—emotional, psychological, and spiritual freedom—we have to look beyond the immediate promise of thrills, ecstasy, and intimacy.

Once again, don’t get me wrong. I think sex is wonderful. I love to awaken the wild one within. I just don’t want to get burned by it, and neither do I want anyone else to. I have high ideals—I want sex to be karma-free. I want its ecstasy to be experienced in a way that strengthens rather than weakens our fundamental confidence and trust in life itself. Deep and profound trust between human beings, especially now, is nothing less than sacred. In fact, I believe it’s the currency that a truly spiritual life depends on. For God—or whatever name we use to define that which is most sacred—to enter into this world through us, we must learn how to be deeply trustworthy. And in order to do that, it’s important that our experience of sex is karma-free.  

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Join Andrew Cohen for a free virtual dialogue on June 2nd with integral philosopher Ken Wilber exploring sex and sexual ethics. Register here

Image Credit: Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock.com

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