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Spiritual Transformation through BDSM Hardcover – June 26, 2007
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Here is a treasure trove of thoughts and perspectives on spirituality and BDSM, from Christianity to neopaganism, Buddhism to animism, Hinduism to "no label, thanks". Dominants, submissives and switches all weigh in with their thoughts; people from all walks of life, sexuality and experience levels make their voices heard. And the variety of ways in which they make their kink more spiritually meaningful is incredible-I never got bored reading the wide range of experiences these people had!
The editor has done a remarkable job of balancing out the content, as well as choosing a superb array of contributors. I really liked the combinations of interviews and essays, and I thought that both the topics the essays covered and the interview questions really got to the heart of the matter. This book really gave me a ton of brain food (okay, well, over a pound anyway-it's a big book!)
What really struck me was how incredibly thoughtful the essays were. Unfortunately, all too often people outside the Scene (and even some within it) see BDSM and kinks as only tools for sexual gratification; those who are not kinky may assume that we're all "perverts", "deviants", "sickos", and otherwise unlovable, unwanted outcasts from society who are just out to get our next sexual fix. While there are certainly those for whom (healthy) kink is solely in the realm of Malkuth, there are also those of us for whom it is a transcendent experience. The contributors to this anthology do a remarkable job of offering up a variety of viewpoints to show the more spiritual/reflective side of BDSM, to show how it can make us better people-and even bring us closer to God (or whatever name you use to refer to the Divine). This is a truly valuable book, and it's one that I wish I could show to anyone who assumes that BDSM is just about the slap and tickle for everyone. Sure, we may value the slap and tickle for what it is, but that's not all that's there.
Honestly, I really have only one minor complaint, and that's the copy editing/proofreading. This book could have used one more pair of eyes looking it over, because I found a noticeable number of typos and misspellings in there, as well as consistent errors such as swapping its/it's. Being an editor myself, I do tend to be more sensitive to these things, so it may not make as much of a difference to other readers; however, I found it a bit distracting.
Still, that's a small thing in the face of 600 pages of pure excellence. I really, strongly recommend this book not only to those in the BDSM community, but also members of various religions who may be perplexed about how we "perverts" can find something so seemingly "messed up" to be such an incredible experience. Be forewarned, if you plan to read this in public, that there are a number of erotic (though not fully pornographic) photos scattered throughout for aesthetics-a brown paper book cover won't cover those. But they're lovely pictures, and I think they add to the text, as they're artfully and tastefully beautiful.
Overall, a really nice book, and it comes quite recommended.
-- C. P. Cavafy
An acolyte, approaching the Buddha, is said to have asked, "Are you the messiah?"
"No," answered Buddha.
"Then are you a healer?"
"No," the Buddha replied.
"Then are you a teacher?" the student persisted.
"No, I am not a teacher."
"Then what are you?" asked the exasperated student.
"I am awake," Buddha said.
To be awake, in spiritual terms, is to be aware: not just aware the way plants are aware, that turn their leaves toward the light, shut down their production of chlorophyll in autumn, or open and close their flowers to attract the right pollinators; not just aware the way all animals are aware, that display curiosity, learning, and variously observable levels of intelligence as they actively seek to feed, survive, and reproduce; and not just aware the way all human animals are, who can feel and think and assert at any moment that we exist.
To be awake, in spiritual terms, is more than that. It is to have our consciousness stir as if from the long dream of the lives we live, and to become aware that we are aware; not just to know ourselves, but to know that we know our selves as we move through space and time. To be awake is to reflect upon ourselves, not in the ordinary, automatic ways of our personal histories and driver's license identifications, but experientially, moment by moment, in the body and mind, the heart, gut, and brain. The late 19th - early 20th century occult philosopher Georges Gurdjieff, who asserted that most people are "asleep" most of the time, called this condition of being awake the ability to "remember ourselves," and made the challenge to do so the centerpiece of his teaching.
Discussions about the relationship between BDSM and spirituality are not new. The topic was not new in December, 1995, when I joined Joseph Bean, Cléo Dubois, Sybil Holiday, and Fakir Musafar on a panel to discuss the subject for the Society of Janus, nor was it new when Fakir talked about the role of the Ka-See-Ka in guiding SM journeys, or Joseph explained the spiritual dimensions of bondage in an essay by that name, both in Mark Thompson's seminal 1991 anthology Leatherfolk. It was not new even back when there was no organized leather community, and aesthetes and flagellants used sensory deprivation and intense, frequently erotic sensation to seek the face of god, or to encounter the sorts of spiritual raptures the 16th century St. Teresa of Avila describes in The Interior Castle. But to the best of my knowledge no modern person has devoted an entire book to the subject before now, and in Spiritual Transformation through BDSM, Sensuous Sadie blesses us with the wide experience in this area of more than 30 contemporary players, including all those I've named so far.
It might be that one reason no one has done a book like this before is that no one who knew about BDSM wanted to think it was as dry and anti-sexual as many people find the usual forms of religion to be, with their sere sets of hand-me-down protocols. But Sadie, who knows a great deal about BDSM, has found the perfect solution: she has separated the dry dicta most organized religions offer from the great orgasmic rush people often experience in direct encounters with the Divine as they understand it, and thereby shows how a deeply personal spirituality can be altogether as sexy and juicy as BDSM. In fact, this is a surprisingly sexy and juicy book, with happily sexy and juicy authors discussing their rip-roaringly sexy and juicy times.
In the first pages of her introductory material Sadie explains both her challenge - "to bring together the voices of the people in our community who are most engaged with the issues around BDSM and spirituality" - and her method - an essay by, and an interview with, each contributor, following his or her responses to three requests:
Please describe one BDSM scene when you felt moved by a higher power. How did it feel? How did you differentiate it from non-spiritual scenes (or not)?
Please describe one ritual or specific activity that you use as a catalyst to move you toward not just Dominant or Submissive space, but toward a spiritual headspace.
What are some specific activities that you would recommend to a novice who would like to begin exploring spirituality through BDSM? How would you help them to focus their intention on this path?
Sadie then sets the stage with a 40-page essay, "Spirituality in the Scene: Using BDSM to Open the Doors of Perception." In her essay she explains how she structured her approach to the subject based on Joseph's Bean's model, and quotes from his wonderful essay, noted above: "To extend into spirituality, a man may go head first as the yogis do, body first as the fakirs do, heart first as monks do, or he may attempt the perilous task of going sexuality first as in certain Tantric paths." She connects Joseph's understanding with that of Aldous Huxley, who explained his view about opening to enlightenment or the "Beatific Vision" in his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception.
Sadie's essay is luminous in part because she identifies herself as a seeker: "I don't see myself as an authority but rather as someone exploring the path beside you, my reader. If I am anything, I am something of a shaman writer, a tour guide with a battered but somewhat readable map and a sense of humor about the possibility that we might get a little lost." The essay also reminds me what a damned shame it is that the old Drummer, Dungeon Master, and Sandmutopia Guardian are gone. I know the internet is filled with sites where information can be posted and exchanged, and others where we can chat forever about What It Is That We Do. Nonetheless, as an old writer and one-time academic I find nothing to replace the vanished publications where leatherfolk used to read and write in print for one another and some imagined form of posterity under the guidance of intelligent and knowledgeable editing and vetting.
Sadie's book provides a formidable dose of what I crave, and that is part of what breeds my enthusiastic gratitude for the endeavor she has embraced, as well as for what she has accomplished. Selection by selection, I feel I am listening to a whole roomful of my mentors as each explains from the heart of hard-won wisdom what she or he finds awakening and transformative about the erotic orientation we share.
Some people talk about insights we all come to on this path. For example, the importance of conscious breathing is mentioned by nearly everyone in the book. When Janet Hardy answers Sadie's question, "How do you teach beginners to first get in touch with their spiritual and sexual energy?" she speaks in a collective voice: "90% of it is breath. Breath is the bus that the energy rides, and if you can learn to move your breath all around in your body, you've learned to carry the energy there too."
Similarly, about a third of the contributors address their practice as a sort of non-theistic meditation. "I don't really describe any of my scenes as `spiritual' because they are all, in their own way, spiritual," Rick Umbaugh explains. Perhaps another third allow for a god in some form, but find the deity's specific qualities less significant than the focused attention required to find it. "I don't think I'm qualified to say, or even to recognize, if I'm being moved by a higher power," says Vladimir Kozicki. "All I can do is approach my scene with a certain ... [sic] mindfulness, being extremely attentive to what I do and say, and to my partner firstly. God's part in all this is a mystery for me which I don't try to figure out." And maybe half the contributors to this book assert, explain, or describe the rituals they perform and the benefits those rituals bestow when they enter upon a scene, all of which enable them to show up with fully present awareness: to be awake. Says Justin Tanis, "I see leather as part of the spiritual experience in the same way that I see breathing, eating, rejoicing, and mourning as part of the spiritual experience, which is to say that all is spiritual. If we reserve our spiritual selves (if we could even separate that out just for `spiritual moments'), we miss out on all that is holy all around us, all the time."
Despite my 35-year history with Northern California's eclectic blend of a Transpersonal New Age Neo Zen Buddhist Gnostic Taoist Human Potential Pagan Wiccan Animist estian Superhighway To Enlightenment, I found striking the broad range of spiritual traditions the SM players here embrace. From neo-Pagan shaman Raven Kaldera to Leatherfaerie Shaman Stuart Norman, from Mathew Styranka's foot-fetish Zen to the leather Christianity of Hardy Haberman and Rebecca Brook, moderator of Leatherchurch, from Fakir Musafar's body-first spirituality and Mimi Andronica's yoga DS to Skian McGuire's serenity in the Society of Friends (Quakers) and Master Alan's exegesis of the Talmudic laws for the consensual acquisition of a slave, people with a spiritual bent find spirit where they are. As Jack Rinella says, echoing the thoughts of everyone in this book, "All is one. Everything that is, including those things that are not, are part of God, are within God."
Chris M. describes this collective exposition of spirit. "In the highest levels of SM the participants are doing something very close to what occurs in the experience of worship. In SM we create a sacred space, an inner cathedral, a world within the world but also somewhere outside it.... It is a taste of an ecstatic higher plane, a mythic realm that emerges through ritual, role-play, and the archetypal nature of SM activity.... the primal experience of the scene is about as real as reality gets to the people who have been there."
Dossie Easton reflects on the experience of the same material. "It seems to me that BDSM is spiritual practice already, and we are only now willing to name it. Certainly the experience is most often more intense than washing the dishes, at least for me; perhaps the focus, and going into the body in such an intimate way, the role-playing of characters from deep in our Shadows, and the length of time and energy we commit to this exquisitely elaborated expression of sexuality, all contributes to going into trance while traveling there."
And for those who would simply object to this book's topic, Patrick Califia observes that "despite our thick tongues and jaded sneers, something ethereal and rare really is out there, really does happen, even to SM players who haven't got a clue about how to conduct a ritual and didn't particularly want to assume the mask or speak with the voice of a god/dess, or be broken down and remade into an utterly new thing. Taking spirituality away from sexuality is as impossible a chore as wholly divorcing it from romance."
I could open this book just about anywhere and cull a quote equivalent to those I have chosen to use so far because, as Sadie and gazillions of others have noted along the way, there are many roads to the top of the mountain, but only one view when you get there. Nonetheless, each of the many paths of awakening offers its own hardships and its own rewards, each provides its own unique, spectacular vistas, and each demands its toll. One joy of a collection such as this is the opportunity to savor the differences while learning to appreciate the unity to which they are all directed.
Sadie has divided her book into five sections, within one of which she situates each of her contributors: Eastern Traditions, Earth Centered, Judeo-Christian, Traditional Wisdom, and Unaffiliated. Sometimes I was surprised by where people I know turn up, but that may be because most could equally well occupy places in any of several sections. In the same fashion, I could commend any chapter here to someone interested in the subject of the book, making my selection based in part on whether the individual wanted to read a view that is funny, warm, abstractly cognitive, or passionately emotional.
In a corner of my home a small copper spiral hangs from the ceiling with a marble ball inside its coils. When you spin the spiral with your fingers the ball appears to travel up and up and up, or down and down and down, depending which way you spin. And yet, illusions to the contrary, the ball simply goes around and around and around, always in the same plane. Like Sadie, we all are seekers, and whatever answers we have come to so far are bound to change as we go round and round, learning and growing some more. Perhaps that is one of the reasons a book like this can exist despite the famous Zen maxim that tells us, "those who know don't speak, and those who speak don't know." Novices as we all once were, we all are novices still. I regard many of these contributors to be spiritual Masters or Mistresses, whether Top or bottom or switch, but no one knows it all and everyone is on the road. Speaking what we do know, we look to learn what we do not. We seem to be awake, even if we are not enlightened.
Full disclosure demands that I mention I am one of Sadie's subjects and occupy my own 20 pages in the book; I am also the person Sadie asked to interview her for her own representation here, so I can't pretend I have no interest in the book's success. At the same time I find myself genuinely awed to be in the company of so many people I would gladly regard - and sometimes have gladly regarded - as mentors in my own pursuits of BDSM and spirituality, and count it an honor to bring Spiritual Transformation through BDSM to your attention.