You may have heard of the term “spiritual materialism,” but have you heard of “sexual materialism”? Probably not. I just invented it.
Spiritual materialism is a term coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Shambhala Buddhism. He says that a big problem in spirituality is when we apply a capitalistic framework to our spiritual lives, meaning we think that being a “spiritual” person means we have already or will “attain” something by following a spiritual path. So the same way we work at jobs in order to get money, we think that if we work on ourselves, we’ll get a reward. And when this doesn’t happen, we get upset and frustrated, because we want to “get” something for our labors.
This applies to sexual frameworks as well, and it causes us a lot of hurt and heartbreak. We think of pleasure as a commodity, of orgasm as a reward. And orgasms are great, don’t get me wrong. Who doesn’t want an orgasm? Who doesn’t enjoy that kind of release?
But that’s the thing—some of us don’t enjoy that kind of release, because as soon as we orgasm, we experience all kinds of uncomfortable feelings: shame, guilt, despair, isolation. We think that the throes of lovemaking are going to heal us and make us feel better, but once it’s over, we go back to the same scared numbness as we had before. And so we either move further away from lovemaking, or we become addicted to it the way we become addicted to a drug. Our operating system becomes focused on what we can do to attain and experience pleasure or orgasm, as though it’s the pinnacle of everything we want to reach for, but we’re only satisfied for a few moments before real life settles back in, and we feel empty and confused, waiting to get our next fix.
The problem is, because of the way our culture is set up, and because we have so few models of healthy sexuality, we don’t know what to do with all of these feelings, and we don’t know how to talk about them or express them in healthy ways. So we end up going into dark caves inside ourselves and repressing our sexuality, or feeling ashamed of it, or watching a lot of pornography, or cheating on our partners so we can feel something, anything. Or, if we’re single, we begin to operate from a place of conquest, of collecting sexual partners, to convince ourselves we are worthy and desirable. Meanwhile, we’re steeped in a pain that won’t go away no matter how many orgasms or sexual partners we have.
A healthy sex life is not just about the sex. Good sex is a byproduct of interior health. And so once we can get clear in our hearts and minds about what we want, about what motivates us, about what we believe to be true (or what we’d like to be true), we can begin exploring a healthy sexuality, which involves, more than anything, strong, healthy communication.