March/April 2003
Going Deep
Topspace, Bottomspace, And Sado-Erotic Ecstasy

by Chris M

Why even talk about spirituality? In this technologically advanced age of moonwalks, supercomputers, and medical miracles you might think we had outgrown our primitive spiritual needs. Science has explained away a great deal of what once seemed miraculous and beyond rational comprehension. The ancient and revered idea that we are surrounded by hidden, supernatural forces that actively control our weather, harvests, and health, has given way to the deterministic laws of physics, meteorology, and medicine. We no longer attribute floods, famines or hurricanes to the wrath of angry gods. We call a mechanic, not a holy man when our car won't start. For the first time in history, we know that instead of heaven just beyond the clouds you have the ever-thinning stratosphere, then finally, empty black space.

In spite of this, spiritual practice thrives in all parts of the world today. Millions continue to find meaning and purpose in the world's great religions. Others have turned away from the major faiths to seek sustenance and growth in Goddess worship, Wiccan gatherings, and new age practices. Others still have found it in nominally secular activities like meditation, painting, yoga, poetry, acupuncture, martial arts, the study of literature or philosophy, kiatsu, Reiki, even serving tea. In short, spiritual sustenance can be found in any activity where pleasure, personal effort, and an experience of the sublime intersect. Spirituality has a thousand faces, and has been approached by a million paths, both religious and secular. You can hear spirituality in the music of Al Green, Beethoven, Bach, Van Morrison, and Aretha Franklin. You feel it in the words of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Albert Einstein, and in the literature of Joyce, Jung and Joseph Campbell. You see it in painters from Rembrandt to Rothko. Spirituality in everyday acts of charity by strangers and friends alike. You can find it in sex, the blissful union of two becoming one. There are no limits to where you can be surprised by spiritual rapture. Some of these experiences occur during SM.

People who engage in SM (bottoms, more often than not) have reported all sorts of odd experiences that lend themselves to description in spiritual terms. Feelings of transcendence, healing, euphoria, intimate union with your partner, your god, even the entire world. I, myself, have encountered such feelings. Maybe you have too.

Yet, talk of the spiritual experience in SM is still comparatively rare. Perhaps it's because spiritual feelings are so personal, so private so… different, that we don't know how to discuss them. Perhaps it's the image of SM as mere 'kinky sex', which makes the idea of SM/Spirituality seem silly and affected. Perhaps it's is because many SM folk feel exiled from the religious practices of their youth, and that spirituality connotes an authoritarian voice intoning, "You're a sinner and you are going to hell".

But exile from religious institutions needn't mean exile from religious experience. My deepest periods of spiritual growth were my studies of mathematics in college where I truly learned how to think, my three years of therapy, my first year of exposure to the SM scene, and my ongoing love affair with literature and art. Four different kinds of life experience: intellectual, psychological, physical/sexual, and aesthetic, none of them explicitly religious in nature. I am certain that I'm not alone in finding spiritual awe in unusual places. The man at an SM club kneeling with his pants unzipped, licking at the boots of a hot dominant may not be seeking orgasm, but the experience of worship.

My main contention is that the central dynamics in SM are nowhere nearly as strange or uncommon as one might initially believe. Despite SM's radioactive public image, and the toxic view of it held by radical feminists and fundamentalists alike, a lot of the SM experience can be seen in everyday life. Cussing someone out, target practice at the shooting range and kicking a wall in anger all share SM's central practice of fantasy enactment of aggression and power as a substitute for aggressive action. For those of us who make a habit of attending SM functions, it's ironic how shocking they are to newbies, when expressions of violence are so commonplace ("I'm going to kill that son of mine! ") that we no longer find it strange to threaten our loved ones with death over small transgressions.

A brief aside: When I was 18 I took a first date to see "Alien", the sci-fi shocker with Sigourney Weaver. It traumatized me so badly I never returned to see it again, despite my love for horror films as a genre. When the sequel appeared in theaters six years later, I discovered at the office water cooler that "Alien" had scarred another young analyst in my firm, Paul. We discussed the horrors of the first film and the rave reviews of its update, which described it as a white knuckle roller coaster ride, and finally agreed to see it together as a kind of maturation rite. We went to a bar first and got roaring drunk, and arrived at the theater early to get perfect seats. As the crowd from the previous show poured out onto the sidewalk Paul and I watched, dumbfounded; they were laughing, chattering, grinning from ear to ear. You would think they'd seen the funniest comedy ever made. Two hours later we left the theater feeling like we had just scaled K2. Silly as it sounds, it was something I still remember as a milestone.

Six years and a lifetime later, I attended the unveiling of Jack McGeorge's newly refurbished, now legendary, dungeon in the suburbs of D.C. It was 1991, I was still barely a year into the scene, and had never attended a private party before. Downstairs the mood was very serious: shadows, Gregorian chants, naked bodies, and dungeon work, some of it quite heavy. But upstairs the mood was festive: Bright lighting, party balloons, smiles and laughter. And I remembered that crowd coming out of "Aliens" and realized that trauma, fear and pain, if carefully orchestrated, could produce joy, release and empowerment. When you come right down to it, scary movies are really a sub genre of SM dungeon scene. They happen in a dark cavern. You're with others who will share the ride. The film director guides you through a fun house of horrors. You scream, cry, cower in fear and, when its over, feel glad you took the ride. Weirdly enough, maudlin tear-jerker in cinema and weepy love songs do the same thing. By forcing you to witness tragedy and heartbreak (Debra Winger gets cancer, Spock dies to save the others), you are tricked into releasing pent up grief and sadness in a way that relieves, purifies and ultimately makes you feel good.

Although SM can be a spiritual practice it is certainly no religion in a conventional sense. It is an ad-hoc art form borrowing from a great many traditions, some explicitly religious, others, not at all. It worships no deity, has no sacred doctrine or literature, no liturgical music, clergy, or mandated forms of worship. Its practitioners span the gamut of religious affiliation: Protestants, Jews, Catholics, Wiccans and Agnostics engage in SM practice, most of them with no sense of conflict between their faith and their SM interests.

But SM does lend itself to expression in spiritual terms. It involves the explorations of transformed internal states that 'feel' spiritual in nature and seem to involve a discovery of mystery, beauty and a longing and awe of the unknown. SM does have a sort of 'chosen people' who self identify as members of the SM tribe. It does have a sort of 'church' in the organized groups, where practitioners assemble for fellowship, friendship and to learn and perform the rituals. It boasts an impressive number of rituals and rites that perform something of a devotional function. And anyone who has spent time in the community can attest to the high premium placed on ethics, particularly those of tolerance, acceptance and self control. In many ways SM resembles Zen Buddhism in the idea that spiritual grace can be found in nominally secular activity, or new age practices which offer great flexibility both in the beliefs espoused and the practices engaged in. And the subjective experience of an SM scene is in many ways a pure expression of spiritual rapture.

On the Spiritual Impulse

Ecstasy. Uplift. Revelation. We humans are built for it. People have a need for ecstatic deliverance: to celebrate; to get it all out; wallow in shame; sob uncontrollably; howl at the moon; to ascend from our world of temporal concerns. Throughout our lives we seek not merely survival but experience: joy drama, illumination, wisdom, a sense of value and purpose. Even as we deal with the responsibilities and challenges of life, we yearn to be lifted up, transported out of the ordinary, to excitement, discovery, aliveness, and ever deepening comprehension of who and what we are. And we achieve this in all kinds of ways. Worship provides it for some. People take expensive vacations in pursuit of it, others work their fingers to the bone, to earn the money to acquire it. Exercise provides it. So do secular activities like cinema, dance, opera, and literature. Work, diligence and craft can provide a cleansing focus and serenity when you're working on something that matters to you.

Different emotional states, even those not ordinarily thought of as pleasurable, are as vital to the human beast as a well-rounded diet. Rich emotional experience fulfills a profound human need. And spiritual sustenance is like sleep. If we don't get enough we suffer. How much spiritual experience do we need? Actually, the ten commandments provides some guidance. "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy," says the third commandment. This compact law not only addresses the virtue of industry (work six days; rest one) but it also tells us how much holiness and sacredness we need on a weekly basis. The intent of the Sabbath is not a "fun" day, a "day off" or "weekend", but a cloister in time, set aside for contemplation and reverence. So how much sacredness do we need? Four full days a month. Minimum.

And when it comes to uplift, a lot of people have found that SM can do it too. A good scene can lift you all the way up. It is a taste of an elevated plane of existence, sometimes almost a visionary state - a heightened mode of perception that binds you to your partner at a level of intimacy far deeper than what we know in day-to-day existence. A life lived with SM as an ingredient can provide a steady diet of spiritual nourishment, wonder and surprise.

The Mystical Experience

One face of spirituality is the mystical experience, the epiphany, the divine revelation, the light bulb suddenly turning on, what Laslow called the "peak experience." Laslow claimed these experiences are happen all the time but seem so strange and inexplicable that we seldom discuss them and tend to push even their memory out of our minds. These strange events can take many forms: the religious conversion, the near death revelation, the life changing insights that can emerge from contemplation, prayer, or might spontaneously appear without known cause. This is more than an experience that is merely pleasurable and exciting. The authentic spiritual encounter can be life altering. It has permanence and leaves you changed for the better, in a way a chemical high might not. For me spirituality is not just about altered consciousness but altered character.

Spiritual events are strange things; sometimes they just happen. Your walking down the street and wham! A life changing flash of insight. The road-to-Damascus experience. Other times, illumination arrives seemingly as a reward for having completed a worthy effort. And sometimes we achieve victories that surprise us by failing to provide the validation and inner meaning we hoped for. I would be loath to claim the spiritual experience can be forced: It's far too individual for that. But we can do things to at least prepare ourselves for the spiritual experience; the world's religions have been doing this for eons. Houses of worship are ergonomically designed to invoke spiritual awe. Think of a gothic cathedral with its soaring, stone walls that stretch heavenward in defiance of gravity, stained glass windows that pulsate with color and the otherworldly organ and choral music that further transports us. Be it Mosque, Cathedral, Buddhist shrine or a magic circle of corn strewn by a Navaho Shaman, the intent is the same: to block out the distractions of the temporal world and focus our attention on the sublime. Its probable that Paleolithic shamen performed similar rites by torchlight in the painted caves, to achieve similar ends. Every faith, culture, and religious practice has their own traditions, rituals, protocols, and practices: Sacred music and dances, myths and holy literature. But the goal is always the same: to set the stage for spiritual awakening.

Mention SM here? Why not?

Is this because of magic? Supernatural intervention? That hardly seems necessary. The rituals described above clearly work on a psychological level. The mind is naturally capable of altered states, many that "feel" magical. Some are analytical in nature: The rush of conquering a crossword puzzle, or the 'aha!' sensation of the proverbial light bulb turning on when something mysterious, is suddenly understood. Some we know as emotions: grief, bliss, fear, excitement, jealousy, wonder, irony and contentment. Memory, dreams, daydreaming, hallucination and fantasy demonstrate our fairly amazing power to flood our own senses with imagery that is remembered, invented or imagined. States of hypnosis, trance or meditation feel even stranger, despite being fairly well understood both in terms of cause and the methodology for inducing them. Alpha waves have been measured in the brains of Tibetan monks during meditation and Christian nuns in prayer, proving that mystical experiences from different traditions have a common neurological form. Waking visions and altered perception of reality can happen spontaneously but can be induced through psychotropic drugs which serve as sacrament in native religions of the southwest and the Caribbean. And the experience of love, the sense of attraction and fusion so total that all material boundaries seem to vanish, has inspired much of the greatest poetry and art ever created. Even emotions we think of as unpleasant, like anger, fear, horror and disgust, serve a purpose. Rage can give vent to internal tensions, aggressions and fears. Blood soaked action movies surely owe their international popularity to the catharsis they provide. People ride roller coasters for the sole pleasure of scaring the hell out of themselves.

When faced with the range and intensity of these altered states of awareness it is easy to see why, in earlier times a thinking person might believe they represented the presence of otherworldly beings. True, some might argue that crossword puzzles and roller coasters have no place in a discussion of spiritual things, but bear with me. Fundamentalist claims to the contrary, prayer, meditation, ecstasy, compassion and peace of mind do not belong to exclusively to the Christian experience, the Muslim experience, or the Buddhist experience. They are human experiences that find expression in both religious traditions and other circumstances having nothing to do with organized worship. The spiritual experience and a full rewarding life is available through many avenues, both secular and religious.

I believe that SM taps directly into the primordial religious experience behind all the worlds religions. It does this without an orthodoxy, without scripture, without explicit deities, without continuous ancient traditions. SM teaches that through diligence, inner quest, courage and compassion for others, we can encounter the sublime in our daily lives. SM teaches us that its healthy to encounter the sublime, and that even in ecstatic abandon we can be responsible fair and loving. SM teaches us that pain holds beneficial properties, and that power must be sought and wielded responsibly or it mutates into immature selfish self indulgence. Not everyone in our community holds themselves to these standards but the best of them do.