The Essence of Healthy Sexual Intimacy

Many years ago a group of us students of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi were engaged in a question-and-answer session with our teacher. Someone asked, “What about sex?” 

Roshi replied, “Once you say sex, everything is sex! . . . Do you understand?”

Roshi often repeated the phrase, “seeing things as it is.” His English wasn’t that good, so someone thought he needed help and told him that the proper grammatical phrase was, “seeing things as they are.” Roshi said, “Yes, but I mean seeing things as IT is!”

He was always reminding us that everything is a manifestation of one Source. In Zen this is called Buddha nature, or Dharmakaya, but the name isn’t so important. If we pay attention to the phenomenal world and think more deeply about it, we can recognize that everything arises from one source. And with the discoveries of quantum physics, there is now scientific backup for it. It’s “evidence-based”! This knowledge can be helpful to anyone who may feel that the oneness of all is merely a “religious” belief. We now know now, scientifically, that there is one energy field manifesting as everything, including us!

What does recognizing oneness have to do with healthy sexuality? We are always imagining separation and antagonism where there isn’t any. Due to our sense of separateness from each other, we often generate fear. We create emotionally charged contexts of various kinds in which we habitually intensify our imagined differences to others and guardedly anticipate threats. As we know, healthy relationships rely on trust. But when we get involved in these heightened states of fear, it becomes very difficult to relax and trust.

Sexuality and sexual relations are particularly emotionally charged for us. In some cultures sex is regarded very matter-of-factly as a natural need as ordinary as eating or sleeping. And if we think about it, there isn’t anything innately secret or shameful about sex. But in most modern cultures and in North America especially, it seems, we tend to carry so much shame about sex that we distort our relationship to this quite natural aspect of our being. We may be taught as children that sex or sexual desire is “bad” and “sinful” which creates terrible chaos in our attempts to relate to our sexuality.

But if we can understand that, as Suzuki Roshi said, “everything is sex,” then that means there is nothing special about it, either good or bad. Nothing special! With this awareness, we can afford to relax and experience our sexuality just as it is, without the fearful and hostile distortions. Understanding that sexuality is “nothing special” doesn’t demean it. Ironically, it means that we respect all aspects of life equally — including sexuality. We appreciate every part of our human existence — our body, sense perception, breath, energy, emotion — as it actually is, without any prejudice.

How to Practice Healthy Sexual Intimacy

1. Practice respect for the miracle of your entire being. Sexuality is one amazing aspect of how we function. Don’t separate out aspects of Being as being good or bad.

2. Relate to every aspect of Being with open curiosity, kindness and respect. Approach your own sexuality and the sexuality of others in this way.

3. Do an inventory of the fear based and shame based programming that blocks you from being relaxed and open with yourself and others – regarding sexuality and anything else. Once you say ‘sex’ everything is sex. This can take time and may require seeking help from others who have cleared their own fearful and shameful programming.

4. It can be very helpful to develop an ongoing introspection and conversation with yourself through journaling. Have a regular heart to heart written dialogue exploring the attitudes and beliefs you have about  sex and the opposite sex.

5. Whatever their gender identity or sexual preferences, people have significant biological differences and experiences of sex. There is growing recognition and acceptance of the complexity of sexual preferences and gender identities, largely due to sex-positive activism by the LGBTQ community and pioneering efforts to refine the language of gender and sexuality. When you engage your partner in any type of relationship, with mutual respect and honesty, you can explore your differences without fear or shame. Cultivate the ability to share about what you want and don’t want and recognize that differences don’t make anyone right or wrong or good or bad. There is plenty of room to explore!

6. When you can maintain an atmosphere of mutual kindness and respect, you can resolve any issues, differences, and confusions without generating fear and hostility. A crucial sign of respect is respecting that ‘no’ means ‘no’. Seek outside help if you find that you keep crossing boundaries.

For centuries most cultures have been, and largely still are, extremely restrictive about sexual identity. For this reason, learning to relate honestly and respectfully can take time. But we can determine to take our whole journey with kindness and encouragement. In this way we experience benefits all along the way. 

As we become more and more courageous, honest and sensitive to ourselves and others, we can enjoy meeting the challenge of being alive in a human body/mind. It is a journey, yes, but we don’t have to wait until we arrive at the end of the journey to reap the benefits! Step by step, day by day, as we make the effort to travel through life with greater kindness and encouragement, we can remember to appreciate our efforts as well as the increasing sense of closeness and trust we will begin to notice in our relationships.

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