For nearly two decades, my social, sexual and philosophical life revolved around the subculture known as S/M, BDSM or leather. I spent every weekend and many weeknights at dungeon parties and S/M discussion groups. I traveled around the country monthly, teaching workshops like “How to Take More Pain ... and Get More Pleasure From It” and “Warm Cheeks, Warm Heart.” I wrote and published books about it. I relied on its unique jolt of arousal, endorphins and adrenaline to get me through bad moods, PMS, creative blocks and anything else that was bringing me down. It was a heady era that fed my ego and libido abundantly and my pocketbook at least adequately.
It ended. Not with a whimper -- the gradual tailing-off that many S/M folks experience as age and relationships take the edge off their desire -- but with a bang.
My frequent co-author Dossie Easton and I were working on a book called “Radical Ecstasy,” charting what is known in S/M-land as “spirituality”: the transcendent, ecstatic, deeply connected state that may occur during and after a good scene. We were enacting intense S/M scenes with one another and our other partners, and the scenes were often chosen to illuminate some aspect of the manuscript: edgy role-plays designed to tap into both personal and cultural histories of trauma and abuse, as well as intense, prolonged experiences of bondage and pain. They were risky scenes both emotionally and physically, challenging every skill we’d acquired during our combined half-century-plus of experience. In the spirit of research, we added tantra and other quasi-religious practices into the mix and took classes in those, too.
It was, as we wrote at the time, “a commitment to extreme, exaggerated spiritual openness over a period of approximately two years, an experiment in living without skin over an unnatural period of time.”
As we neared the endpoint of the work, though, I was beginning to fall apart a little. My social life withered and died; I cried for any reason and for no reason. Something deep inside me was apparently coming closer to the surface.
And then, at a weekend-long tantra workshop, it came. We’d been practicing breath, eye contact, movement, visualization and therapy-like exercises with different partners for a day and a half: everything from the one where you picture your partner as a creature of perfect innocence and vulnerability to the one where you say the things to your partner that you would say to your mother if you dared, all mixed with breathing techniques and pelvic motions. Each exercise peeled away another layer of protection, so we were all wide-open and quivering, naked as oysters, as vulnerable as people can be in the presence of strangers.
For the last exercise, on a balmy Saturday night, we rejoined the partners we came to the class with -- in my case, Dossie. There was nothing special about this particular exercise. We were in yabyum -- the tantra position where you sit in each other’s laps with your legs wrapped around one another and your bodies lined up heart-to-heart, eye-to-eye -- and we were breathing and undulating our hips. No special visualization or verbalization instructions, no particular shoulds or shouldn’ts. And then, whatever was inside me decided to come out.
I began to scream, and I kept screaming. I tipped over backward, arched up off the floor, borne only by the crown of my head and the soles of my feet (with Dossie, caught, straddling me in midair). I was utterly out of control, my body wracked with wave after wave of energy.
It was like grabbing a live wire -- slower, deeper, more systematic, but with the same inescapability and the same terror. And it was the deepest ecstasy I’ve ever felt, like orgasm times a hundred, from the tips of my hair to the ends of my toenails.
I couldn’t remember how to stop. I thought I might die.
It actually lasted, I’m told, about a minute and a half, but a minute and a half is a very long time to scream at the top of one’s lungs without pause except to suck in more breath, or to lift one’s own 200-pound weight and one’s partner’s 175-pound weight on one’s feet and head.
When it was over, I laughed softly in wonder. And then, with no transition, I began to cry, hard. I cried for a long, long time.
I have since learned that what happened to me is called a “kundalini awakening” (or “kundalini crisis” or “spiritual emergence”). Many tantrikas and other meditators consider this experience very desirable, an important step on the path to being fully evolved. A few also warn that it can be terrifying and life-changing and can cause physical symptoms including unpredictable trance states, vertigo, back and neck pain, changes in sexual desire, etc. (I’ve had all of these and more.)
I’ve never heard of a teacher or class that warns beginners like me about kundalini awakening because it happens so rarely to beginners. Given that tantra is traditionally hostile toward S/M and other alternative sexual paths, perhaps the tantrikas have no way of knowing that many advanced S/M players are already well along the path that they are teaching. S/M teaches one how to find pleasure in non-genital sensations and also how to hang in there when sensations or emotions begin to seem too intense to be borne – both of which, I believe, are ways of opening the floodgates for whole-body orgasm. (One of the things Dossie and I saw as we invited friends to join us at tantra is that our friends from S/M tended to catch on extremely quickly to the exercises and to begin having orgasmic experiences much sooner than such things ordinarily happen.)
Of the little that has been written about kundalini-awakening-or-whatever, the vast majority has been written by people I frankly think are kind of weird. Most of it describes concepts like, from Wikipedia, “two nerve currents in the spinal column, called Pingalâ and Idâ, and a hollow canal called Sushumnâ running through the spinal cord.” This sort of thing has made it very hard for me to figure out what happened to me, or how to recover from it. I am in the position of the hardcore atheist who has received a convincing visit from a big, deep-voiced guy who says his name is “God.”
You see, I don’t believe in kundalini, at least not in the way that devotees do. I went to tantra because I was writing a book and wanted to learn what the tantra people know. And, after my first whole-body orgasm during an introductory two-hour workshop, I discovered that they know a lot -- but that they frame their knowledge in a faux-Eastern haze of abstraction and mysticism that makes absolutely no sense to me and does not fit in with the way my world works. Tantra people think kundalini is a manifestation of the Divine, an energy that pervades the universe or a “force that lies coiled at the base of the spine” (whatever that means). I think it’s a simple physical energy like electricity, or perhaps a neurochemical phenomenon, that we don’t yet have the instruments to measure.
Dossie, who was by my side throughout all this and has been unwearyingly supportive in the years since, recovered handily from her “Radical Ecstasy” experiences. I suspect this is because she had been privately doing tantra-like practices for four decades and had a lot more experience of the journey in and the journey back. Maybe it's also because she does not share my aversion to the language of, well, woo-woo. Dossie speaks of her chakras, for example, with the same easy familiarity with which she speaks of her ears or her knees. I am congenitally unable to discuss my chakras without putting mental quotation marks around the word.
The psychiatrist/researcher Stanislav Grof has written about this issue in words I can at least understand, even if I don’t always agree with them. His metaphor for the kundalini awakening is that of a garden hose that has been subjected to fire-hose levels of pressure: The physical mechanism is insufficient to convey the amount of “stuff” that’s being passed through it, so its sides blow out. That at least makes some sense, and it is compatible with my kundalini-as-physical-
The suggested strategy for recovering from the kundalini awakening is to live a low-key life, spend time in nature and avoid doing things that might bring up more kundalini -- sex, excitement, meditation. Tantra instructors tell you to “ground,” a practice that involves visualizing yourself rooted to the earth and sending energy down into it, which I have found to have remarkably little effect. (My tantra instructor, who insisted that I rejoin the circle and continue with further exercises, was apparently unaware of these protocols. Given the long-term, possibly permanent changes that were wrought in my life during that minute and a half, I have not quite forgiven her.)
There has been no advice written, as far as I know, for the practitioner who has her crisis in the months immediately preceding a book deadline -- with a pressing need to continue the kundalini experiences, revisit them both bodily and intellectually, get back into the saddle of the horse that threw her. I’d like to think that I would have recovered a lot faster if circumstances had allowed me to follow my instincts, which were to run far and fast from tantra, S/M and sex in general until I felt more like myself again.
For several years after that night, though, I dropped into trance state, and from there into the energy overload that tantrikas call “kundalini orgasm,” without volition, any time I let my attention stray out of intellectual functions and into the feelings in my body -- for example, when I put my attention into my fingertips or my thighs or my belly. I still drop into this state quite easily -- I can feel it wanting to come up now, just from writing about it -- but it’s been a few years since it happened without my permission. This feels like progress: enough, at least, that I feel reasonably safe writing this.
(If you think that being able to have orgasms any time you want and sometimes when you don’t sounds like fun, I draw your attention to the case studies of Persistent Sexual Arousal Syndrome -- a condition that has been known to lead to suicide. Kundalini orgasms are less debilitating only because you don’t have to drop everything in order to masturbate; they don’t require the use of the hands. But otherwise, they are just as embarrassing and distracting and dysfunctional. Orgasms are only fun when you have to go hunting for them; when they hunt you, they are as terrifying as any other seizure.)
We finished the book. It was published in 2004, and I’m writing this in 2013. It has taken this long for me to talk about my experiences to you or to anyone but my closest friends. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have done anything at all in the realm of sex since then. You will perhaps be glad to learn that I am pondering the possibility of having sex again sometime this year.
Tantra folks would tell you that this happened to me because I went too far too fast and began doing advanced work when I had not spent years in lesser practices, grounding myself and gaining a deep understanding of the nature of the universe. Of the immediate circle of friends who know enough about kundalini to understand the problem, some think I have reached the level of an adept -- someone who has mastered a practice (in my case, the practice of sex) so completely that she no longer feels the need to revisit it. Others think I am broken and feel sorry for me. All these theories feel partially true, but none feels like the complete truth.
My one experimental foray back into S/M brought me closer to some kind of understanding. With a liked-but-not-loved friend, I essayed a few of the activities I used to enjoy most: I flogged her, caned her, had sex with her with a strap-on. From a distance of what seemed like miles away, when I looked down into my body, it seemed to be reacting as it always had -- my nipples got hard, I got wet, I came. And yet it didn’t seem to mean anything. It didn’t seem to matter.
I fear that, having had the chance to act as a firehose, I am unable to find much joy in being a garden hose again. And I am terrified by the idea of once again becoming a firehose (it would be easy enough; I’d just have to make contact with Dossie or another of my partners that knows how to go there with me, to revisit some combination of the breath with some of the intense pain play I used to love) for fear of triggering another round of out-of-controlness.
There is also, of course, the possibility of taking out-of-controlness as my way of life. I have met people who have done so, who live in tantra retreats, who have built lives in a place where it is entirely appropriate and understood to drop to one’s knees shrieking as the bliss takes over. Those people were, I have to tell you, awful -- with thousand-yard stares, dirty robes and the reek of bodies long unoccupied. That’s not the life I want.
If you want to know the life you want, the saying goes, look at the life you have. By that standard, the life I want is very quiet, in a little house in semi-rural Oregon with chickens in the backyard, dogs shedding on the bedspread and a spouse who has also lost interest in sex along his own equally intense and complex journey. And I think I do want this life. I chose it, anyway.
But, God, I do miss the other one.