Intimacy, Spirituality and Counselling
INTIMACY! Ok, now that we have your attention . . . let’s try another cue: SPIRITUALITY! And now, we’d like to know: what was the difference in your reaction to the two words?
For many, intimacy conjures up juicy images of sexual trysts with the mythically perfect lover: one who attends to our every need while having none of their own: the perfectly accommodating partner who blends with our every sensual impulse to create a blissful togetherness. Notions of spirituality, meanwhile, are often iconically depicted as the lone meditating figure in lotus posture: the hermit questing for divine ecstasy in a solitary and impossibly disciplined journey that could not be further from the sensual pleasure of intimacy. Yet as we will see in this post, both images short-change their respective words through an incomplete and therefore misleading representation of their connection to us, the human beings engaging them, and to each other. This post explores how the two notions may be related and attempts a user-friendly explanation to help us show clients why nurturing one nourishes the other.
The longing for connection
At the heart of the conundrum of how we regard, and engage with, both intimacy and spirituality is the universal human longing for connection: that is, a yearning to be intimately related to something that is larger than our individual selves. One stream of thought that responds to that quest is transpersonal psychology, which we could refer to as the study of the psyche (meaning, the consciousness larger than the conscious mind) that goes beyond the individual ego. In fact, the “trans” of transpersonal indicates movement not just beyond (which would be “meta-personal”), but going across; transpersonal studies go across individual human beings to find the unity that connects them all.
That may sound very much like it falls on the spiritual side as opposed to the “intimacy” aspect, but consider this: early use of the word “intimacy” — widely regarded now as a sexual or physical experience — was seen in Zen literature as a synonym for the breakthrough of realisation or enlightenment. So to be intimate to the ancient Zen masters was to be “one with” (i.e., the apex of a spiritual phenomenon). To not be intimate was to be in one’s head (Amodeo, 2017).
The yin and yang of the spiritual/relational quest
Dr Charlotte Kasl, professional licenced counsellor, healer, and author, notes that sexuality and spirituality are closely intertwined. Grounding our sexuality in a loving, intimate relationship with another person can enhance our capacity to connect with “the vastness and wonder of the universe” (Kasl, 2012). Separated from that intimate relationship, sex descends into a negative, empty experience that does not satisfy us for long. Conversely, the deeper desire for a sense of oneness with the universe can manifest as the desire for sexual union and ecstasy. We can get a glimpse of that ecstasy of spiritual fulfillment in a superb sexual experience, but sex alone cannot give us the lasting fulfilment our psyches (souls) crave (Kasl, 2012).
Sexuality and spirituality, notes Kasl, are both deeply personal and connected to our life force energy. Or put another way, the soulful yearning for intimacy arises from the very same impulse that moves us toward spiritual life. Thus, spirituality is not about ideas in our head. Rather, it is about coming into direct contact with what Dr John Amodeo calls “the quiet pulse of life that flows through us and between us”. Spirituality, he says, is “being intimate with the life that flows within us and outside of us” (Amodeo, 2017). Thus, if being intimate means going receptive to the life that happens between us, intimate relationships are transpersonal by their very nature. The comment of philosopher Martin Buber is insightful here. He wrote that, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them” (Buber, in Amodeo, 2107).
Even more simply, intimacy has been described as yoga (meaning, “union”) with the present moment: a state of receptiveness which is deeply intimate by its very nature, yet in its opening of awareness, also makes available all levels of deep connection, which we might tend to regard as “spiritual”. And the very best part of this way of viewing intimacy and spirituality is that the path from the one to the other does not require another cooperating human being. Rather, it is our own mindful presence in every moment of life which kick-starts the sublime process of intimacy-leading-to-spirituality (Spiritual Awakening Process, 2011).
What is involved in the quest?
We might ask: if genuine intimacy leads to spirituality (or possibly vice versa), what does it mean to have true intimacy? What sorts of relational processes are involved in it? For many people, the first response that springs to mind is probably the physical intimacy of a primary relationship. And there is more. Quoting a definition of it as “a process whereby we feel truly seen, known by and connected to our partner” (Kogan, in Tartakovsky, 2014), Margaret Tartakovsky delineates five types of intimacy.
Predictably, this level of intimacy is included as the sense that we can talk to our partner about our innermost thoughts; both pain and joy can be shared. Truly understanding the partner, being able to be vulnerable, and sharing feelings is key to emotional intimacy. Many issues can preclude it: things such as anxiety, depression, ongoing stress, or even a partner’s habits, such as drinking.
When we exchange ideas and opinions about things we think and care about or about interests, or when we share thoughts on life in general, we are going for intellectual intimacy.
Tartakovsky is quick to point out that physical intimacy does not necessarily mean sex. It could be the act of being physically affectionate with one another: hugging, cuddling, and holding hands are all examples of this.
Sharing experiences — that is, without electronic gadgets to distract us! — constitutes this sort of intimacy. It could include anything from a walk on the beach to sitting in a garden to sky diving.
From worshipping together as a couple to hand-in-hand walks in nature, this level of intimacy is about creating awe-inspiring moments together (Tartakovsky, 2014).
The idea is that feeling disconnected from our partner in any of these areas is a signal that we need to talk (and even talking about intimacy can build it). Through openness and honesty and a genuine desire to “see” and understand the other person, we can enhance the closeness that is foundational to our spiritual effort.
Three steps on the journey
Kasl (2012) describes steps we can take (or encourage clients to take) to better experience the intertwined flow of sexual and spiritual energies.
Making a commitment to oneself
We commit to knowing ourselves and our partner. We commit to being open to our feelings, to growth, and to change. Without such a commitment, we might block sexual energy from flowing through us, thereby dissociating from part of ourselves and rendering ourselves unable to live in our wholeness.
Making a commitment to attuning with the “something-more-than”
We commit to becoming more open, aware, and tuned in: attuned to our partner, yes, and also receptive to sublime energies such as those of love, wisdom, truth, and the sense of our own higher purpose. Taking this step has a corollary. It means that, while we might make love to our partner, we do not worship at the feet of the sex god; we acknowledge that, even in the very act of sexual intercourse, we are seeking something larger, higher. Sex — indeed, all the forms of intimacy — are/can be delightful, pleasurable, and lovely, but they do not replace the need to seek meaning as we become ever more deeply imbued with purpose. This step takes us into greater intimacy with all of life.
Allowing playfulness, creativity, and joy to enter the quest for intimacy/spirituality
As we go receptive to these qualities, we bring bright energy to spirit, body, sexuality, and partner, says Kasl (2012). This possibly seems like an odd third step. Yet if we consider when we feel our most intimate in a partnership, we must include the delightful moments of sheer playfulness and unadulterated joy that spring from a sense of complete acceptance by another, of safety in that Other’s company.
Coming from what is seemingly the opposite direction, there are texts in some religions that exhort followers to be like little children in order to “enter the kingdom of heaven” (see Luke: 18:17 or Mark: 10:15 in the New Testament of the Bible for this reference). Those passages are often interpreted to mean that spiritual seekers should be humble. It’s not too hard to connect the dots here. When we are humble, we don’t pretend that we know it all; we go in with a beginner’s mind rather than taking ourselves too seriously. Having lifted the weight of “expectations of expertise” off our shoulders, we can experience a lightness of being that is prelude to playfulness, creativity, and joy. And yet the Bible’s authors urge this not of those seeking an intimate human relationship, but in the context of connection with the sublime, the numinous, the something-more-than: that is, for those seeking to increase their spirituality.
We declared at the outset that we wanted to explore how intimacy and spirituality are related, and also find a user-friendly way to describe to clients why nurturing one helps enhance the other. Here is the ultimately simple, user-friendly response: in reality, the energy we use to explore and express sexuality and intimacy is the same energy — our vital life force — that we use to explore and express our spirituality. Whether that energy manifests as an ecstatic orgasm or the ecstasy of divine connection is up to the individual whose will is directing the energy. Here’s to joy!
- Amodeo, J. (2017). What does intimacy have to do with spirituality? Psychology Today. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.
- Kasl, C. (2012). Sexuality, spirituality and relationships — A guide to bringing them together in our lives. Charlottekasl.com. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.
- Spiritual Awakening Process. (2011). Spirituality and intimacy. Spiritualawakeningprocess.com. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.