Topspace, Bottomspace, And Sado-Erotic Ecstasy
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
the Spiritual Impulse
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
SM here? Why not?
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.
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
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.