Due to special circumstances I am putting out a newsletter mid month. This is in response to the suffering I’m hearing all around me as many of us are reeling from the latest Supreme Court confirmation and all that has been brought up about sexual abuse in this past two years. In order to bring healing to a wounded nation we need to first open to our own wounds, and healing begins with truth telling.
In the summer of my eleventh year, as my body was turning from child to woman, my life suddenly darkened. As exciting as it was to watch my body change, I was confused by the new reactions I was getting from the males around me. My father was suddenly distancing himself from me and my older brother, who I loved and looked up to, was acting strangely. One afternoon he blackmailed me into letting him sexually explore my new body, threatening me to keep quiet about what he was doing. I kept quiet. I felt responsible. I felt shame. My home was no longer a safe refuge. I tried to stave off the abuse by avoiding him and walking around the house in curlers and baggy clothing so that I would look as unattractive as possible. But it didn’t work. The abuse didn’t end until my father walked in on us. Then everything went silent, no one spoke of the abuse.
I didn’t revisit this experience until my life started falling apart in my 30’s. Then, while in therapy, it all came rushing back. I remembered, and realized how this experience had negatively affected my life. I thought I would never stop crying. The combination of the abuse and my father’s admonition that no man would want to marry a woman who was not a virgin, created a situation where it was over for me before it had even begun. At 11 I already believed that no man would want to settle down with someone like me so I let go of the expectation of a good life and became a “bad” girl.
Hearth is dedicated to, supporting the spiritual growth of families. We would be remiss in our mission if we ignored the way sexual abuse creates suffering in families and in our spiritual development. When sexual abuse is not addressed it continues to travel on through the generations. The DNA for the pattern feeds on silence. In order to heal from these patterns we first need to break that silence. Women often don’t speak of sexual abuse till years afterwards, if ever, either because they are not believed, or worse, blamed, when they do speak up. Sometimes women forget about the abuse because it is just too painful to remember. These dormant memories eat away at our emotional and physical bodies. Like a cancer, we often don’t even know what is draining our life force until real damage has been done. Then we remember. When these memories do finally rise to the surface we can clearly see the devastated landscape they left in their wake.
Sexual abuse is ubiquitous. It is experienced in all classes, from the mansions of the wealthy to the tenements of the poor to the seemingly perfect middle class home. It is in all fields, from academia to service work, in all countries, in all religious organizations and perpetrated by people with all sexual orientations. Sexual abuse is usually initiated by a man taking advantage of a woman or a child, but there are also cases of men abusing other men as well as women perpetrators. The statistics vary but an average is that 1 in 4 women will be sexually abused in their lifetime. The number is likely greater than that given that many women feel too ashamed to ever speak of the abuse.
Those of us who have been sexually abused are being re-traumatized since the election of a president who feels entitled to “grab women’s pussies” and a newly nominated Supreme Court Judge accused of sexual abuse. It seems unthinkable that someone who lied under oath, raged in full sight of the American public and is credibly accused of sexual abuse would be elevated to a life time position on the highest court in the United States, but this is where we’re at.
The many women who have experienced some form of being on the other end of this sort of predatory activity are understandably feeling re-stimulated and ill at ease. It’s painful to have these feelings rise up. But, the good news is, something new is emerging out of the pain. Instead of feeling alone, shameful and somehow responsible, the Me Too movement has created a safe space for women to step up and speak about their experiences. Sickness hides in secrets. As women open up and tell their stories they begin to release feelings of shame, air their wounds and join their sisters and brothers in fighting for a kinder world.
In addition to abuse in the home and at the work place, abuse by trusted religious leaders is also being exposed. Tying sexuality to spirituality has arguably created more damage than benefit, both within systems that see sex as evil or a distraction as well as systems that see sex as consequence free. Ultimately, spirituality is about awakening to our true nature and is not dependent on natural human functions such as sexuality. Yet, in the course of human history, sexuality has gotten all tangled up with spirituality. Religions throughout the world, both East and West, have made unholy alliances with power and have used sexuality to achieve greater control. Dictates on sexual morality and sexual activity have been concocted to distort natural sexual functions and turn this powerful force into a weapon of control, mostly of women.
One of the alliances between spirituality and sexuality made by religious leaders is celibacy. Eliminating sexual distraction can be useful when the person is truly at a place where sex is no longer of interest, but few are at that place. The Buddha became celibate after years of open sexuality, both in and out of marriage. His father, in an attempt to keep Siddhartha in the secular world, offered him all the sensual delights he could desire, including women. Once married to Yasodhara, Siddhartha enjoyed a happy sexual relationship with his wife. The prince had fully experienced sex before coming to the conclusion that there are more important things to pursue. Celibacy was not embraced by the Buddha to get away from something he deemed bad. He chose celibacy in order to focus on something greater. If celibacy does not unfold naturally in a person’s development it may be used to hide from unfinished, uncomfortable, sexual issues. But there is no hiding from our sexual desires and wounds in spiritual pursuits. If we attempt to do this celibacy becomes toxic.
On the other end of the spectrum, Tantra, which is historically a practice of awakening during everyday activities, has been skewed in the West as purely sexual. Tantra is the practice of being awake during all activities, from the mundane to the transcendent. Sexual exploration alone does not further awakening any more than washing dishes, sitting in traffic, or any other activity furthers awakening. It doesn’t matter if we’re having sex or changing a diaper, it matters that we are fully present. Singling out sex as tantra practice is another way sexuality and spirituality combine to create a distortion that can lead to emotional damage and even abuse.
There does not seem to be a correlate between celibacy, sexual freedom and awakening. There are celibates who awaken and there are sexually active people who awaken. Sex is a powerful force best explored through psychology, sociology and the healing arts. Religion has not proven itself adept at dealing with this vital force. Ultimately we need to be open and honest with ourselves about our sexuality, forgiving others and forgiving ourselves, for any transgressions as we grow stronger and have more fully integrated the experiences.
I still love my brother and am no longer holding angry about our early encounters. He was messed up, he messed me up and on and on through the generations until someone breaks the pattern. The journey to forgiveness was a long and winding one but I feel I’ve come out the other end.
The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is kindness.” If we take this as a north star for all our sexual encounters we have all the guidance we need in order for our sexuality to support our spiritual life. Everything else is commentary.