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Wholeness and Desire

Neurons-firingA well-known neurological phenomenon is expressed in a catchy maxim: “What fires together wires together.”  This phrase tells us that if two distinct neural pathways habitually fire together, they eventually lose their distinctiveness.  The brain starts to treat them as one, because it’s more economical.  As an illustration of this, researchers taped two fingers of a hapless monkey together for a period of time; and when the tape was finally removed, the two fingers straightened together and bent together.  Their neural pathways had been forced to ‘fire’ together, so they had ‘wired’ together.

There are many ways in which our neural pathways practice such economy in our daily lives, but the effect often remains hidden to us because the ‘wiring’ so often belongs to the culture that shapes us.  My childhood was shaped by the stifling conformity of the ’fifties – the tone of which was set by a generation of fathers who had been in the army as teenagers.  They were prepared to die for a cause, and were themselves shaped by a paternalistic, top-down organization in which efficiency relied on conformity, feelings were to be reigned in, and sensuality was a liability.

I was also shaped by the ’sixties, an era distinguished as the first time in human history in which a generation of young people turned to their parents and said, “What you are doing is wrong.”  Reacting against their parents’ world, the younger generation empowered a cultural revolution on several fronts – a revolution in social justice, in self-expression, in a renewed identification with wild nature, against the militaristic imperative, against racism and sexism, and of course for sex.  The sexual revolution assaulted the prevailing views that sex was sinful unless sanctified by the church; that genitals are inescapably shameful; and that deep physical pleasure carries the taint of deep guilt.

Whoever believes that the sexual revolution freed a generation from those burdens underestimates their tenacity.  But it did bring bodily pleasure front and center, and brought the body itself into plain view as both an object and source of pleasure.  Because this was coupled with the self-fulfillment espoused by the ‘me’ generation, the effect was mixed.  For instance, the resulting freedoms have been a huge boon to advertisers, who are relentless in searching for ways to overtly associate their products with sexual pleasure.  The potent effect of such advertising is brought to light by the maxim quoted above: if every time you see a certain product advertised, you also experience the pleasure of a mild arousal, the product and the pleasure are firing together and begin wiring together.  You are then more likely to buy the product because it ‘feels better’ than the others.  Reason tells us that choosing on such a basis is ludicrous – but as advertisers know all too well, we are not governed by reason.

In some ways our progress towards sexual liberation has created a greater potential in us as individuals for experiencing our wholeness.  It has taken the edge off many of the divisive condemnations and shamings that have been with us for generations.  But it has also brought with it forms of division all its own.  These newer divisions show up in the social pressure to be sexually active, as though it were a failing not to be; in the hook-up culture; in the ability of marketing campaigns that use soft porn to tacitly (and ridiculously) promise us more sex if we buy their stuff; in the massive sales of Viagra, and the hopes pinned on the newly approved version for women; and in the common view that having sex is primarily a means to self-gratification.

I sometimes think that in carrying our sexuality out of the darkness, we managed to bring the body, but forgot to bring the heart.  Without the engagement of the heart, we tend to objectify what we see and experience.  The objectification of the body, and especially of the female body, has been noted and discussed at length.  What remains underappreciated, I believe, is its effect on the person doing the objectifying.

To be sure, the naked female form is ‘a thing of beauty’, and our evolution has amply prepared us to appreciate it.  But to stop there, to see it as a mere object that triggers desire, is to remain in a divided state within yourself.  The stirrings of your desire will be disconnected from your heart.  In our culture this is a normalized state, and we are surrounded by invitations to it; but when the objectification and the desire fire together over and over in the course of a day, and do so every day, desire learns to lean on and seek objectification.  Eventually sexual arousal is associated with objectification.  They wire together.  And when that happens, sexual arousal ends up in one category, and the heart’s love (which never objectifies) ends up in another: they live within us as separate energies.

Because this division has been normalized in our culture, the fallout from it can be seen all around us.  There are men and women who dearly love their partners, but are frustrated in the bedroom because they don’t know how to let their love flood their genitals.  There are sex addicts who can never find deep satisfaction, because what they really long for is the intimacy of expressing love.  There are men and women who tire of being in bed with the same body year after year, and sometimes switch for a new one to feed their arousal – because unlike love, objectified arousal cannot deepen over the years.  In fact, objectified arousal needs to find more and more extreme forms of objectification to maintain its charge.

This cultural tide is hard to swim against.  But as a man, I know that if I look at a beautiful woman from a place of wholeness within myself, I see her wholeness; and seeing a woman in her unique wholeness – having a sense of her courage, hopes, uncertainties, sensitivity and grace of being – always enhances my appreciation of her beauty.  At the same time, it disarms my experience of the pull of any neediness.

I really believe that the deepest human longing is to grow into our wholeness as individuals, and to learn to experience it and trust it; yet we live in a culture whose corporate and political interests have learned to prey on our divisions and deepen them.  When we are divided, we are confused and malleable.  But we do have choice.  We can learn to soften our inner divisions and grow into wholeness.  When you grow into wholeness, you grow into love.  And as you grow into love, you begin to attune to a coherence that imparts a clarity to everything.  As we gain that clarity, we come to understand that it is more than just a personal clarity.  The coherence it arises from isn’t circumscribed, but borderless – generated and upheld by the ineffable harmony of the world in which we live.

Moving towards that kind of clarity begins with a simple but crucial first step: recognizing when you are in a divided state, and understanding that when it comes to your wholeness, you do have a choice.

6 thoughts on “Wholeness and Desire”

  1. Thank you for this reflection about love and sexual desire, particularly since your voice is from my own generation. So often, I have wondered, where did all that energy go so wrong? How did we get so lost from that reach for freedom and integrity? You call us to grow into wholeness; to practice becoming whole. I always appreciate your singular voice and your wisdom. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Susan. I sometimes feel oddly nostalgic for the hope, and energy, and the real sense of possibility in the late ‘sixties, early ‘seventies. I think what is most needed now is a renewed sense of possibility. It’s so easy to feel that the momentum and the entrenched power we face are too big to turn around. I risk feeling some optimism, though, as I look at the younger generation, disabused of many of the illusions earlier generations chased. But we have left so heavy a burden on them. I believe the way forward can only begin with the individual, wresting free of divisions inherited from their parents. I’ll do whatever I can to help with that.

  2. I wrote this a little while back … it seems to flow from what you’re writing here (which I shared on my FB timeline … encouraging everyone to read it):

    Women and men are both equally-valuable/worthy AND differently-unique. Masculine and feminine energy are very different, and meant to be complimentary. We all have both energies, and the more we mature/evolve, the more balanced we become within ourselves — but we each chose to embody one gender or the other, and where to be on the spectrum from very-feminine, to very-masculine. That’s our chosen/innate natures.

    Masculine (yang) energy is strong, initiative, driven, decisive, protective, possessive, and dominating. It wants to claim and fill. It wants to take. It is self-confident. He wants to be a gentleman, a beast and a hero.

    Feminine (yin) energy is yielding, responsive, reflective, open, free-flowing, nurturing, creative and supportive. It wants to be filled up. It wants to be taken. It is other-confident. She wants to be a princess, a whore, and a goddess.

    (Keep in mind that we all have both – that’s why the yin/yang symbol contains a piece of the “other” … the inner-male, or animus, for women .. the inner-female, or anima, for men. Ironically, the more embracing a man is of his anima, the more naturally-masculine he can express; the more embracing a woman is of her animus, the more naturally-feminine she can express. This is true of all of us, regardless of our sexual preferences, whether hetero- or homosexual in orientation.)

    We have been sold a truckload of lies by both patriarchy and feminism – they are a poor and counterfeit substitution for authentic masculinity and femininity.

    Our patriarchal culture has taught men to be overly-controlling, mental-focusing, and repressive of all things feminine, both within the man (internal, i.e., his emotions), and around the man (external, i.e., women). A highly patriarchal man fears the feminine, for he cannot control the mysterious nature of it.

    Feminism is an over-compensational reaction to patriarchy (a much-needed systemic correction; and yet, while it was effective politically, it wreaks havoc relationally).

    Feminism teaches women that in order to succeed, she must likewise repress her feminine nature, and “be/act like a man”. It has also taught men to be uber-sensitive, romantic and tender, to “be/act like a woman to get a woman.”

    If a woman represses her femininity and acts like a man, or if a man denounces his masculinity and acts like a woman, then each will attract that which matches their *facade*.

    (The last two paragraphs *may* help explain why so many marriages/long-term-relationships “fail” – we grow up, we become more authentic, and we no longer fit our facade-based partner. Of course, nothing truly *fails* once one knows that it takes what it takes to evolve. We seem to need those “starter marriages” in order to work through our unresolved early-childhood issues.)

    If each discovers how they are *truly* wired and designed (honestly embracing and embodying their core masculine, or core feminine natures, to whatever degree is innate for each), then they will each attract that which matches their authentic nature.

    Further … each human goes through 3 relational stages (each one is valid and required):

    ~ Co-dependence (“I need you to make me whole.”)
    ~ Independence (“I don’t need anyone – I am whole on my own.”)
    ~ Inter-dependence (“It is no longer enough for me to be whole. I want to join with another whole-soul, and go deeper with them, than I can on my own.”)

    (Note: the language of Inter-dependence may sound a lot like the language of Co-dependence, i.e., “I need you.” But the need is for thrival, not for survival – it’s an expression of desire, not of survival-dependency.)

    Feminism has taught women that the epitome of their own power lies in Independence (i.e., “acting like a man”). Rather than seeing it as a required stage of development, it’s seen as the hallmark of womanhood, and a great number of women are experiencing loneliness, when they crave a partner. Feminism has taught men to be feminine; to be overly-sensitive, to deny their initiative, to be indecisive (i.e., “thinking like a woman”).

    The beauty of Inter-dependence is that both are equally valued. Both are equally necessary for the whole. But they come at the relational-equation with very different energies …

    Yes, he will want to cherish, protect and initiate. Yes, she will want to yield, nurture, and respond. Yes, he will also want to let down his guard and let her be a soft landing-place. Yes, she will also want to be strong in sheltering him. Ideally, the energies will do a divine dance of reciprocity, where giving/receiving blur. And the dynamic will be as unique as each couple.

    And yes … when the match is natural, organic, authentic and honest … it will feel true indeed, to say to the beloved, “You complete me.”

    1. Philip Shepherd

      Dear Dena

      I look forward to the day when we transcend the binary outlook of either/or, and embrace the continuum that exists between male and female within each of us, and in everyone we meet. And I really appreciated your distinction between interdependence and co-dependence. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

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