Sex and Zen I: Vesta
18 March 2008 2 Comments
As Venus (pleasure) moves into a watery trine (emotion) with Mars (libido), sex seems to be on everyone’s mind. Eric Francis of Planet Waves rants about the hypocrisy surrounding the supposed sexual misconduct of Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York. Jundo Cohen of Treeleaf has made it the subject of his talks for the next few days, which he rather poetically refers to as ‘finding stillness in motion’! Rev. Kusala Bhikshu, who runs the Urban Dharma website, has just sent out his latest newsletter on the subject of celibacy. Celibacy, however, is only mandatory for monastics. Lay practitioners are still free to shag as much as they want, within the bounds of reason, moderation and awareness.
There are a number of interesting correlatives to this cosmic encounter between Venus and Mars. Firstly, Venus and Mars are trined in the Water signs of Pisces and Cancer respectively. The Water signs in astrology are emotive, empathetic and intuitive. Venus in Pisces expresses the qualities of Venus (love, harmony, pleasure) in Piscean terms (intuitiveness, idealism, compassion). Mars in Cancer expresses the qualities of Mars (passion, aggression, action) in Cancerian terms (emotional, domestic, self-protective).
Secondly, Mars, which rules our sexual energy and vitality, is opposite Pluto, the planet of death, rebirth, and self-transformation (including via sex), in Capricorn, the sign of organisational leadership. And both planets are the ancient and modern rulers of the sign of Scorpio respectively. What we have here is a pull in opposite directions by two powerful planets, with similar agendas (power and force), but whose energies are manifested differently. Martian energy is open, forceful and aggressive, but in domestic, peace-loving Cancer, it is in the sign of its fall, its weakest position. Mars in Cancer has a tendency towards passive-aggression. Plutonian energy is deep, powerful, and underground, including the realm of the unconscious. In Capricorn, it can be exercised via Capricornian concerns of convention, establishment and institution. At the risk of over-simplification, the tussle between these two planets at present is not unlike a recalcitrant (and defiant) school child (Mars) rebelling against a stern parent or schoolmaster (Pluto). Venus dancing with Mars at the moment may temper the sparks between Mars and Pluto, but it doesn’t mean Pluto’s gone away.
In the third instance, nevertheless, Venus is joined by chatty Mercury, the planet of communication, evident in the sudden burst of posts and interests in the subject of sexual behaviour in the few astrology and Zen sites I’ve browsed (and mine included!). Many of these posts address the subject of the appropriateness of sexual expression (in the case of Francis’ article on Spitzer, prostitution; in the case of Jundo, whether more extreme sexual behaviour is appropriate in Buddhist practice; in the case of Kusala Bhikshu, celibacy), so it is perhaps not mere coincidence that Venus is also joined by Vesta, asteroid, goddess, ‘minor’ planet in astrological terms, but whose influence is far from minor. Eric Francis delineates Vesta here:
Vesta, discovered in 1807, is a complex goddess figure and correspondingly complex asteroid who has some interesting implications for our times. Called Hestia in Greek, she’s the brightest asteroid, appropriate for her role as the goddess of the hearth, in whose temple the six Vestal Virgins tended the eternal flame. But this flame, kept in a temple, has sexual implications, and with Vesta we have the emergence of the Sacred Whore: the goddess of sex for healing, ritual and transformational purposes.
Astrologically, Vesta has been taken to represent issues like using work as a substitute for relationships, the transfer of sexual energy into art, and learning how not to take things so personally. All these themes hold, but they seem to cleverly disguise the attribute of the feminine which, making a personal sacrifice to do so, uses her sexual fire for the healing of others. She knows she is part of something larger than herself, and she gives herself up to do its work.
We met her in high school (if we were fortunate) as the one girl who was truly not afraid to have sex or be called a slut, and would not demand a relationship commitment in exchange. Sex with her was conscious, it gave us a new experiences, which changed us, and it taught us something about ourselves. We may still know such women, from whom sex is a conscious gift and a sharing that is no less powerful or intimate despite being outside a traditional relationship.
Vesta has many manifestations in what we’re currently seeing emerge as a kind of spiritual sex movement, which includes Tantric sex, various types of erotic workshops, and many prostitutes who are considering themselves sexworkers. Sexworkers are women who know they play a vital role as both healers and in making up for a shortage in sexual supply that leaves many men emotionally hungry and out-of-balance (and thus takes a toll on women). Vesta takes us beyond the morality of sex and leaves us facing the reality of sex.
The perpetual debate over appropriateness of sexual expression in human society obscures the more fundamental truths about sex: (with a few exceptions) we like it, we need it, we wouldn’t be here without it. The sublimation of sexual expression (and its intimations of freedom) to social morality is Freud’s sublimation of the id to the superego, producing an ego that is forever trying to free itself from the demands and strictures of both. The obverse — promiscuity as a way of thumbing one’s nose against morality — plays the same unsatisfactory game with different cards.
In the next post, I would like to consider the possibility of transcending, denying, or sidelining, the id-superego dialectic, and attempt to frame the issue in different terms, using the discourse of Zen and Buddhism as a start. The way I see it is, if a balance needs to be sought between the extremes of the id and the superego, the Freudian ego with its grasping pettiness, its bowel-wrenching repression, and its endless litany of fears, isn’t the answer. There has to be a healthier way for us to think and talk about sex, as a vital part of our existence, rather than subject it, as it so often is, to comedy, derision, repression and fear.
Part II .