Opinion: Some Thoughts on BDSM, Esoteric Spirituality, and Essential Guilt

lock and chain

Although I’ve been kinky my entire adult life, I’ve been involved in the lifestyle for about a dozen years. I’ve actively pursued an esoteric spiritual/religious path for at least twice that long, and these two pursuits have never been in conflict. On the contrary, my spiritual impulse has not only informed my ideas about life, it’s also deepened my personal relationships, my sex life, and my understanding of kink, and I’d like to share a few thoughts here which I think might be helpful for some.

Although many seem to think of BDSM as dark, shadowy, sinister, even diabolical or part of a left-hand path (and this includes people within the scene), I’ve always felt it to be overwhelmingly a force of good in the world. While I don’t enjoy or approve of how everyone practices their kink, my years of experience in the scene have led me to conclude it can be a wonderful way to explore one’s freedom of expression and one’s body. As in any social world, there are perils and problems, and a certain amount of self policing within the scene is necessary. Because what we’re doing can be quite dangerous, the stakes are a bit higher than with normal vanilla sex. Although the practice brings out the worst in some people, and the scene attracts its share of sociopaths and narcissists, I keep reading about surveys and studies that reveal how kinky people are overall more emotionally healthy than non-kinky people, and it stands to reason. All the negotiating and deep consideration that simply must accompany serious consensual BDSM play tends to make us more aware of our partners’ emotional needs and of our sensual/sexual natures in general. With the appearance of movies like Secretary and the 50 Shades phenomenon, what has long been considered a fairly recondite area of human behavior edges closer and closer to the mainstream. I’m quite sure more critical theory has been written about deviant sexual practices in recent years than at any other time in history. And yet, I’ve met relatively few practitioners who take an active interest in the esoteric aspects of what they’re doing in the bedroom or dungeon, let alone pursue an occult or spiritual/initiatory path in connection with their sexual identity.

In recent years, my studies have led me to an interest in the idea of essential guilt, which I feel to be an important aspect of the human psyche. A common trend in popular psychology is to view the experience of guilt in a purely negative light, dismissing it as a retrogressive relic of religious or bourgeois morality, a psychological nuisance unworthy of modern, enlightened people, which we must simply overcome and be done with in order to live healthy, fulfilling lives. Quite contrary to this widespread view, I’m convinced guilt is not something to deny or run from, but rather a powerful driving force we should learn to interact with imaginatively and illuminate with self awareness. Viewed as an essential element of our inner lives, its cultivation is not at all mutually exclusive from either hedonistic or growth oriented lifestyles.

By essential guilt, I refer to the profound sense of being beholden to one another and to the entire planet, which we endlessly destroy and which it seems will only be saved by a mammoth collective effort of the creative spirit. (I’m not speaking figuratively here: The world really is on the brink of ecological catastrophe, and it doesn’t seem as though animals, plants, or aliens are going to save it!) If one doesn’t feel a sense of responsibility in regard to what human beings have done to Mother Earth, well, I think that could be a bad sign. I’m not saying we should all go around wringing our hands and beating ourselves up over it, but when you stop and consider things, it’s really quite a shame, isn’t it? Such a beautiful place, gradually being destroyed by our laziness and greed! If we actually felt the pain of the world, we’d likely find ourselves helplessly paralyzed. Indeed, a certain degree of willful oblivion seems necessary for survival.

Another thing to consider is overpopulation. Although I don’t actually believe the world’s problems can be attributed to too many people, but rather to an unfair distribution of resources (you know, this “1%” stuff people keep talking about); nevertheless, the end result is the same. Whereas once upon a time, the survival of the species depended on a preponderance of births over deaths, nowadays each child born is experienced by his family, subconsciously at least, as a nail in our collective coffin, so to speak. In the words of the great Italian film director and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), “No matter how lovingly received they are into the bosom of their family, [children] absorb this sense of being in excess, which gives rise to the most terrible neuroses.” I’m not saying this is the main cause of present day angst, but I do think it’s a significant, unacknowledged cause of stress upon the modern psyche. Kids are of course helpless to do anything about this, but as adults, we can start to consider what this means, and acknowledge that we are simultaneously a burden to the planet’s survival and its only hope.

As many people raised in traditional religious households will testify, this innate sense of guilt is often seized upon and exploited during childhood by abusive authority figures. Uptight feelings about the body and one’s desires may develop, and the most tragic self esteem issues multiply as a result of this abuse. Crippling shame is the shadow side of guilt and overcoming its paralyzing effects has become the focus of a great deal of modern psychology. In the process, the idea of essential guilt gets conflated with all manner of terrible emotions and shoved under the rug or thrown out with the bathwater, so to speak; acknowledged and understood in the right context. it can prove to be a source of profound self knowledge.

Its fundamental significance in kink, for instance, should be apparent to anyone who considers or explores BDSM role play with any depth. Consider the decision to assume or relinquish control in a D/s scene, or the desire to act out fantasies of punishment and reward, not to mention the pleasure taken in verbal or physical humiliation. While other motives might also play in, don’t these intense dynamics point to one’s sense of essential guilt? You could say the masculine approach is to take charge and act decisively; the feminine response is to hand over a portion of one’s will and take what’s coming to you. (Please note that I use the terms masculine and feminine in the traditional sense, without speaking of men, women, or others, among whom these qualities may be distributed in any measure.) This is not to imply that every single masochist is trying to assuage a sense of guilt, but I tend to think it plays a significant role. When you get a good spanking or beating, the conscience is temporarily, symbolically relieved, and one beneficial result is that orgasms may flourish. Of course, deep trust in one’s Dom/Domme, Master, Daddy/Mommy, what-have-you, is crucial for a healthy transfer of energy. As with most things, a sense of balance is key.

While I sympathize deeply with the various unhappy experiences that motivate the wholesale rejection of religious belief and practice so common in the secular world (and particularly in the microcosmic kink scene), even a rudimentary scholarship requires a basic understanding and appreciation of the world’s religious philosophies, literature, and history; if one chooses to pursue such studies, esoteric spirituality is the next logical depth to plumb.

The Fall of Man, as narrated in Genesis (with corresponding legends and ideas in almost every mythic tradition), tells of God placing Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and forbidding them to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which she shares with Adam; they immediately become ashamed of their nakedness, and God banishes them from the garden. From the perspective of Western occultism, this story can be understood as a grand picture of our decision to incarnate, that is, to descend from the spiritual world (or the world of formative forces, if that helps) into a physical form, and to take on all that’s implicit in our relationship to matter, including the temptations of egotism and materialism. Put in the simplest terms, Eve’s imagination was stronger than Adam’s will, and the apple needed to be eaten! Full knowledge of our selves means an awareness of our capacity for moral corruption, and at every moment we must strive to make free choices; while the jury is out on whether or not we are capable of true spiritual freedom, it’s good to have something to strive for. (I’m not saying it’s impossible to escape compulsion and act out of true inner freedom, just very, very difficult for most of us.)

If we’ve descended from a condition of purity into a world of temptation, it’s in order to redeem this fallen world through our deeds of kindness and good will. And while this human faculty of the will may be quite mysterious, the feelings that guide it can be illuminated, at least partially, by clear, wide awake thinking. Although the intellect is our most ready and valuable tool for understanding how necessary it is to develop a moral compass and ethical sensibility, without a spiritual practice to give them form, such realizations are unlikely to settle into the will in a way that will really allow us to make a difference in the world.

Mind you, all this talk of guilt is not meant to be discouraging. I hope it’s clear by now that when I refer to essential guilt, I’m not talking about feeling badly about the poor kid you teased in grade school or your compulsive masturbation habits; rather, I’m encouraging you to consider that we are psychically embedded within a cosmic sense of justice, and almost always on the wrong side. And yet the upshot is that human beings possess boundless imagination and creativity, and I’m confident we will figure our way out of this mess! The “vale of tears” in which we live is our school, and should not be considered as punishment even to the extent that life makes one miserable; rather it is an opportunity to restore balance. Personally, I love being alive, but I’m agonizingly aware of my own privileges and shudder at the extent of my capacity for denial.
It behooves us all to cultivate a sense of gratitude even for life’s most grueling lessons; to develop true responsibility requires an awareness of one’s guilt. Yea, so be it.

Note:
I should like to state that I was not raised in a religious environment, and found a spiritual path through my own varied intellectual and creative interests. My specific religious orientation doesn’t seem relevant to what I’ve written here, though if anyone is genuinely interested I’m happy to discuss it.

Neil Martinson is a writer, artist, cartoonist, dj/impresario, lingerie designer, and garden variety dominant hetero pervert. He grew up in NYC, lived in SF for 22 years, and moved to LA a year ago. He recently wrote a book about the band CHROME and is working on an erotic-mystical-science-fiction-noir comic called OBZINE. He will reply to any reasonable queries addressed to: herrneilson@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Steve Schnobrich says:

    Thank You! I appreciate the knowledge put forth concerning guilt.

  2. some heavy stuff but very enlightening. this is def a different direction on kink weekly but good to have lots of viewpoints

  3. SirJohnofCawdor says:

    As a clinical psychologist, I know many good things about guilt, but if it is essential, I’m on a mid rail. Being a recovering Catholic, I know of the RC churches stock in trade. I’ve also seen the absence of guilt and responsibility, as in the movie SPOTLIGHT. I have helped many find its origins and use its energy in constructive ways, I’ve seen many a guilty decisions made, like doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

Speak Your Mind

*