Towards a Mystic Understanding of Erotic Knowing and Gender Identity

In his show “Gender Mystic,” performer Didik Nini Thowok explores transgender themes and their relationship to mysticism within various Asian traditions.

Have you ever wondered about the intersections of erotic and spiritual life? I know I have, quite frequently, as most of my late-twenties life has shown a pattern of learned separation between the two, a pattern that still persists across multiple cultures I survived and interacted with. Yet, there is an abundance of arenas in life, from centuries-old mystic traditions to mytho-poetic and artistic perspectives, that reveal the contrary. They can show us how the erotic dimension of being human, the way of intuitive knowing that comes from a particular, irresistible pull towards that special someone or intense life calling, are inseparable from one’s spiritual actualization and fulfillment within their lifetime. Not only that, but there are also recent engagements between the spiritual and the sexual that can be of immense transformative potential for a society, and that I found have a lot of insight to offer to social movements organized around sexual liberation and gendered identity politics.

In this video, I do the best I can as a poet and scholar, who made the wild decision to write a thesis about erotic-mystic knowing, to narrate some beautiful and powerful findings from my journey in finding an alternative narrative to the dissociation of sex and spirit, of romance and religion. I look at three mystic traditions that have really carried me through the caves of consciousness for myself and my society, then carried me back up to the social sphere with some insights that are as awe-inspiring as they are intuitively familiar. Those are the traditions of Islamic Sufism (“the religion of love,” which I grew up on secretly!), Tantra Yoga (a true embodiment of one’s body as starlit cosmic connectivity), and some Shamanistic traditions passed down through matrilineal shamans (I cannot wait until I graduate and explore the whole-oriented profundity I discovered here beyond the written page!). I also borrow from the wisdom of key figures that embodied a creative union of the erotic, the spiritual, and the socially transformative within their lifetimes, such as phenomenal feminist and queer theorists and poets Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa, as well as the prolific religious scholar and Yogi Georg Feuerstein.

Below, I am sharing three out of the twenty poems I included in my essay. Poems can be bring with joy and trembling at once for those who encounter it, in writing or reading or hearing those tricky little tricklings of rhyme and metaphor. They take you up beyond the seismic shake of piercing across some atmospheric layer that invisibly shielded oneself, delivering you to a newfound home in the stars that is oddly familiar to settling onto the most everyday couch, and yet evidently new with the numenous seeing that can only come from taking a seat on a ride across the cosmos. It is exactly why I chose poetry to be the primary vehicle in a study on erotic knowing, because it is the most intimate way to illustrate how, at least personally, erotic knowledge that is respected as a spiritual vehicle works: as you follow that pull to reach for the irresistible shining star, you eventually realize that it was hanging off the roof of your heart all along, where the culture or community or cosmos you wish to transform for the better is mirrored and connected and invested in your transformation as you are in it.

In this sense, who is the “I” doing the loving, when love leads you to blend so fluidly with the beloved – the exclusively home feel of a significant other, the aesthetic ideal and rawness carried by another, the insatiable calling to heal a social riff or whole-being channeling of the world soul into art or look under that microscope and fiddle carefully yet playfully with the knobs?  And what can this imaginative, mytho-poetic hermeneutic of so many lives contribute to academic and activist spheres of addressing the gendered identity, gendered language, gendered phenomenology, and gendered spiritual experience? Those are only questions that I am just beginning to answer on this wild ride I have chosen, or maybe it chose me and dreamt me up as a beloved just as much. In this case, I am in no rush to know what I do not know while basking in my unknowing.

That is a hermeneutic of healing that as an American and Egyptian and planetary citizen I wish to see more of in addressing the trauma, and tumult, and tantalizing, and transformations, and truth – the irresistible inner truth – that each life bears deep within and wants to celebrate boldly across its body’s folds and wrinkles, proclaiming intuitive knowing as confidently as we are encouraged to with empirical knowing: I know what and whom I love. I know my purpose. The erotic can be a crucial part of discovering that purpose, that spiritual-existential place that no one can replace for another, and that all bring into dynamic presence with one another.

Was that an adequate description of my gender? I know, I’m still traveling in the self-knowing, but I hope the poems will present you an idea of what this journey excavated and re-animated within me so far. As you stir your soul and body to answering that question for yourself, to standing at the fertile crossroads of your Eros and your mysticism, I hope you travel well – maybe even drop by some cookie crumbs here from the rich reflections you may be bearing down through this spelunking journey.


Poetry Collection

Sukar (“Sugar” in Arabic)

The Brown

of his skin

demands least of all

one more poem

about brown skin

 

beckons most of all

a sweetness of Sukar

connecting my symbols

since childhood,

my native words sounding

through smiles and replacing teeth.

 

Until last night,

When your skin sang

my innermost silvery song.

 

your eyes 

my breasts 

moving moons of molasses. 

 

Undulating Mating

Watching slugs mate through a slow-motion video

was like watching the schitzophrenic love I seem to

split into in times of terror: carrying my house

insular as the desert wind on my back, while

my torso skips forward, touched at every slime

by the pink clobber of a lover, who’s scared as I.

We become one breast, utterly dissolved into

each other’s rawness, but only dissolved at

the breast, as the rest lies safe and cowardly,

coiled behind me in a fragile shell hump home.

Then watching a spider spin its furtive webs

so viciously round a poisoned grasshopper,

and it is a shrewd filmmaker who decided here

that a slow motion camera is useless with the

swiftly, silently cruel spin of a spider, also reminded

me of the way I seem to love an oppressor with their

familiar needle-like prodding round my back,

the pinning of strings, so many of them,

too many to the point of cementing an

impenetrable cocoon of lies. You die either

blinded by their detached vision from across

the web or stung by the poison of the pain they

slug you with and scurry back quickly, on their keen

little needles, back to their stringy detachment.

Then I watch the coupled dragon flies, with one

standing on the back of the other for eyes, and

the bottom dragon fly is there for bedrock above

water. Teamwork, you know, joyous at times,

mundane at others. The dragonflies don’t look

at each other for once, or land side by side.

Then I watch this little dirt ball being rolled

by a littler beetle up a road, a vast road,

but the viewer wouldn’t know it yet.

The scene starts zoomed on the brown sugar dirt,

the glistening beetle, and that slightly bigger and

rounder dirt ball. And I whisper: “thank you, beetle.”

 

You see, the way it does it is by turning its back

towards the rock, intimate and diligent in pushing

up the rock up that road with its hind legs, the eyes

and whiskers feel the road already crossed for

interrogation, reflection, tracing. I thought the

beetle would never make it when a little wooden

prick up the road, stuck to the dirt, sticks back

its thorny tip inside the dirt ball. And I feel the

shelled stalwart muscles push up, down, left, right.

The beetle studiously spins round and from under

until the round art plops off. It’s not about to let

this one go: this centered labor, this buoyant

sculpture, rolling every passing step into the

nascent planet to come. And I remember that labor

of love Beloved rolls in zer tongue, traveling long

roads between my lungs, sculpting brown sugar

beneath my belly, zer eyes shutting upon the

glow of the snowballing knowing that we have

the stuff of simple magic from which to harvest

the daily lessons of love, through which to hone

the whole and undulating mating. No amount of

knowledge can feed you that in your belly.   

 

 Seduced Into Orbit

I. 

Draw my red bra        

Emmanuelle Bousquet, ‘Dream & Nightmare’, New York City
from the folds of our book    

page thirty-three.

Crumbs of foot notes             

trace for you where    

you may swirl the satin          

across my back,                      

all thirty-three columns.

Calmer now, my skin             

surrenders to the muscle        

pulsating at my every center              

seven chakras, to be exact.

And only your gaze now may touch              

the glow that binds me together                                

only your eyes can behold                 

the foam that spills us            

into the meanings, the tongues:                     

6800-6900 languages, they count.

 

II. 

No I can’t blame them                                   

for being so wakeful

as to pronounce the failure                             

of numbers to ever measure

the dialects of this lived wonder:

This human mosaic,

this intimacy of satellites,                              

those rhizomes of touch,

where every lost limb…

and every spilled blood…

and every soil tilled…

and every gender fucked, or rather refined…

and every ritual broken, or newly born…

is slipped between the lived notes we pass on to one another

while washing dishes, or touching one another’s pants, some podcast mumbling in the background, and we mumble in return about what our culture needs.

 Our new planet. Our gift to this planet, planted in our backyard, running on Eastern time, in a small bedroom, running on slippery dream time.  

 

III. 

We survive, but that’s never it.

We somehow find all the ways to rub the scarred stories

and savor them for all our kin, like I press them across my lover’s skin:

coconut oil, brown sugar, candlelight and incent musk

blowing spirits of the vapor as all that is left

of more smiles and scabs to come

on this unconcluded earth:

the spirits poured over ice for lost and unnamed friends,

beneath ever-present stars,

faithfully dropping tears of light,

faithfully winking of new beginnings,

faithfully amorous outside our window.

 

And by god…

 

It feels like a kind of love

that would spin pompous planets

round their supple spines,

with halos for swirling hips

spinning ever so promptly on its pivot,

so as to never miss a sight past

their collective dance, like

an august shoulder,

seduced and humbled enough by every choreography behind it

so as to perpetually do the double-take.  

 

There were nine planets outside our window somewhere,

Though these books argue that they are eight now. 

10 thoughts on “Towards a Mystic Understanding of Erotic Knowing and Gender Identity

    1. Thank you, Vanessa! I’m very inspired by your work on elucidating the intersections of the erotic, the spiritual, and the socially transformative. I’m overjoyed you found my beginning steps as I uncover planetary, long-standing wisdom, and my nascent intuitions, along the same intersections :)

      Big love back,

      Miri

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  1. Miriam! Amazing post! What you describe – this deeply intuitive, primitive way of knowing, this a priori attraction – is something that humans have been trying to put into words since the advent of speech. I appreciate what you’re adding to the conversation with this thesis work. An erotic experience can very well be a mystic or ecstatic experience, and vice versa. Just ask Saint Teresa of Avila.

    The inclusion of your own work exemplifies your claims, providing a deeper understanding of the topic. I commend you for sharing some of your most private thoughts with us.

    Finally, I must say that I fully agree that there are some experiences that make some of us realize that the self is dynamic, evolves in reaction to experience, and is more akin to a process than an entity. If examined and appreciated, this realization truly DOES connect you to “the whole” and/or “the eternal”. I think that, for most people, knowledge of the Divine, the Eternal, or whatever you’d like to call the larger, connecting life force must come experientially.

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    1. Andria,

      I am enlivened by your resonance with what I attempt to do here. In fact, Saint Teresa was an inspiring example for me as I was writing this work. It was also delightful and even awe-inspiring to come across works like that of Jenny Wade, a psychologist, who wrote the book Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil. Her book is about everyday people of many genders, classes, cultures, and spiritual/secular orientations in North America who all experienced intense mystical states – visions, trances, out-of-body states, and more – while having sex. She strictly interviewed people who did not seek to achieve those experiences through tantric, taoist, or similar practices.

      She also found that the experiences had nothing to do with the named/labeled status of a relationship between the participating members – a monamorous couple, a married couple, in love, on a one-night stand, cheating, etc. However, it had much to do with the *relationship* between the people involved (I should add that most of the cases cited were monamorous, however. I don’t remember reading a polyamorous situation, but I may have missed it, and I think it’s possible through this relationship as well). So yes, this is one more comprehensive example that seemed to point more to the dynamic of relationship rather than to the authority of a “self” as grounds for the irresistible, a-priori erotic attractions that many feel.

      More on Avila: due to many arguments I read on the social elitism of individuals who achieve “mystic” states, past and present, thus discrediting the importance of Saint Teresa’s documented spiritual-erotic experiences, I found solace and a brimming, new possibility in Wade’s work. It is indeed hard to even claim “a priori” for me today, for many reasons, the least of which is being from a third-world country, where many arguments claiming to be “a priori” led to its harsh colonization to the point of being labeled as “third world,” as well as being reminded of this spirit-breaking reality I lived by academics whenever the word is brought up. This is the biggest rift I come across and attempt to heal in my work with both spiritual and activist communities on issues of gender: the way of knowing of one is disrespected, otherized, or made of lower importance by the other.

      This work is but a beginning on a process that can take a lifetime, but what I try to do is say that, with the inner suffering and harsh conditions that folks endure and that can be measured in historic processes of colonization, oppression, etc, there are also inner sources of inspiration that come with encountering the “other” and that are worth factoring in and respected. Mystic cultures are not as valued in Western academia, yet they are ironically valued by many of the cultures that western academia today attempts to speak on behalf of so as to heal the repercussions of colonization, as well as its presence as a human phenomenon that even unknowing citizens in North America experience spontaneously, during sex even, and glean so much healing insight from. It’s not about validating mystical experience, but it is about exactly what you said: that it is experience. All I try to do is show that they are worth respecting, looking at, gleaning from, and that the imaginative erotic is inseparable from the historic erotic of more empirical measures of experience, since they both emerge from the lives experiencing what is studied.

      This all sounds irrelevant to this research project at first, but as a fellow academic I know that you would see how this negotiation precludes anything I wrote on erotic ways of knowing and how they can enrich all the integrations in gender activism. That is, in addition to keeping track of my mess-ups, which I indeed make on both ends and with both communities here. But even through them I learn how even more pressing for serving lives bridging this dialogue really is. Sorry, ramble terminated!! But thank you deeply for your inspiring comment, as it provoked me to assess what I am trying to do more.

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  2. Great Post Miriam! I also feel as though we are disconnected from our erotic selves. It is both glorified and shunned. By being in such of ambiguous state of approval we lose the importance of its essence. And in that way it kind of loses its importance. If we are too erotic we are treated with a sense of unimportance, our opinion on things that aren’t considered to be erotic loses value. And if we are not erotic enough we aren’t passionate or lustful enough. The real importance of the erotic self is the spiritual journey that comes along with it. Your poems were beautiful Miri, we should all look deep into these encounters we have and try to discover what its really unearthing. You said poems can bring “joy and trembling at once for those who encounter it” and, when you said “thank you, beetle”, I felt both. Great post, great poems. I still haven’t a way to describe my gender. Yes, I have breast. Yes, I have a vagina. However, if those are the only two things I have in common with a definition of a gender, how much can that gender really define me??

    Thanks for the post Miri. I’m going to keep thinking on this.

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    1. Hey there Sara,

      I love that you brought up this very important and widely expressed point about idealizing or demonizing the erotic. It’s also very important to mention here in light of what I quoted in my video from Audre Lorde, renowned feminist and queer theorist who is also a wonderful poet. I quoted how she associates the suppression of women with that of the erotic (via her essay “Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power”). Then a wonderful psychologist, Carol Gilligan, wrote (via her book “The Birth of Pleasure”) about how the more a society is patriotic, the more women are either idolized or demonized just the same, either “good girl” or “whore.”

      I think those dichotomies come from a fear of experiencing something directly and really seeing what it is presenting. And I’m somewhat guilty of it. To be more transparent and detailed than a cohesive thesis could allow me, there are some intense nightmares that visited me during this study and showed me some dark, manipulative sides of how erotic power is used. I didn’t mention those experiences here, or in the thesis, because my judgment so far was that it would extend my work past the demands of a cohesive, short body of work.

      However, those darker dreams were just as impacting, telling, and hard-hitting as were some dreams I had during this study that were beautiful, guiding, scary and challenging but in expansive ways. It doesn’t take long to connect those dreams to cultural patterns around me, even personal experiences, and how the dreams were a holistic reflection of the array of relationships we hold towards our erotic selves and relationships. Carol Gilligan wrote in “Birth of Pleasure” that idealizing/demonizing women is a good way to avoid knowing them, to avoid knowing them truly and encountering them fully, with all the questions, growing pains, and unexplored celebrations that this may hold. It is the same about idealizing/demonizing any group of people really, also the same about idealizing/demonizing the people within one person, our different sides.

      That gets complicated when you add the “mystical” side of human beings, our intuitively experiential ways of knowing. It is so idealized by some groups that the mystics stop being mystics and become opaque icons of their claims to mysticism, not reflecting any light or insight for their groups. On the other end, with many academic and skeptical circles, the mystical is very demonized and discredited and only understood as a way of knowing divorced from reality, or from real suffering or joy,but only for the disengaged elite. But plenty of evidence shows that the mystical is not that simple, and both approaches do a huge disservice to this genuine way of knowing that many humans who even had no clue of that ability have access to. Like I mentioned to Andria, Jenny Wade’s book “Transcendent Sex” shows everyday people in North America – from different classes, genders, spiritual/secular orientations, and even relationships to their partner, but all who were selected as people who had no clue about their mystical abilities – having intense mystical experiences that teaches them so much about themselves and their world in the middle of sex!

      Thank you so much for helping me articulate that difference!! I also deeply thank you for resonating with me on thanking that beetle. I won’t idolize it as wise, and no I can’t discredit it due to its smallness, especially if it can sculpt a perfect sphere out of mud way better than I can write a coherent thesis. But I will say this out of our encounter: beetle was sure good to me. Thank you for sharing your reflections on gender-knowing as an ongoing knowing :)

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  3. For long have I thought, eroticism and spirituality were two separate entities leading in two separate directions. I thought eroticism was made as a mere indulgence, as opposed to a necessity as spirituality was. Spirituality was the end all, the goal of any god-fearing man. Thought was god. More thought. More god. But god misplaced is god in no direction- god is ineffective. To drown in a sea of endless possibility. Action. Act of love. Love is a choice. A choice is an action. Action moves past possibility. Thought and action. Both real. Another action, unreal, alone as it seems.
    Our undying love
    However unrequited
    Persists still

    JAM!

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    1. Jam on :) I enjoyed the poetic response here, “Special Order.” I especially paused at the part where you state that “action moves past possibility.” Rings true. Thank you for the feedback!

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  4. There is so much here that resonates with me and my experience, albeit from a different angle, that it is difficult to know where to begin. Instead of finding spirituality through sexuality, as you seem to describe, it was my spiritual pursuits and love that led me to discover the depths of my own eros, and also helped me to understand some of the struggles that I have had with that throughout my life.

    How you describe the process of the Sufi traditions particularly struck home, as that is much like my personal experience. The role of sexuality in my life became heightened when I discovered my connections to the ancient Egyptian path of spirit, especially once I began dialogue with those entities that emanate such a raw and unrestrained erotic aura. I fell in love, first with Isis, and then receiving the permission to enter into her body of being while in deep meditation, so too received her universal and transcendent love for her husband Osiris. This was the first time I ever fell in love with a man, if you could call him a man, for the boundaries between Isis and Osiris, feminine and masculine, are so often blurred, fluid as time itself. In falling in love, in experiencing that deep intuitive seeking and desire, I began to see the face of Osiris in mortal men, women, trees, animals, the way that the wind would caress my hair, the way my own body could twist and ripple and respond to the unseen. He became omnipresent and in the act of recognizing his presence constantly, I had my first embodied, waking experience of divinity. Of being able to see, if only just the tiniest amount, beyond the veil and illusion of matter and time. Slowly, with time and devotion and response to intuition, this awareness has expanded to other facets of the Egyptian pantheon, all bringing forth a different kind of light from the same ultimate source of passionate, desirous, erotic, consuming love.

    It is fascinating to me, that even though I knew next to nothing about Sufism at the time, the way you describe the experience of devotion in that path feels very similar to the path that I was led down. To me, this speaks to validation of a deeper truth guiding, a potential shared by humanity, and perhaps shared with other kinds of beings who may meet us along that path.

    The aspects of shamanism and the way that masculine and feminine are divided also intrigued me. I generally think of myself (now days) as a very feminine embodied being, and yet, as a performing artist, I most definitely enact a more masculine shamanism. Thinking on a broader scale, and the levels of overwhelming patriarchy in the west coinciding with the huge value placed on performance (generally not of a healing sort) makes me wonder about the link between the two. If we changed the nature of ‘performance’ in the west, if we made it, as you mentioned, more of means to opening the audience to their own wisdom rather than parading our skill, what would the effect be on the foundations of patriarchy? Could we rattle that from the bones of the people upward?

    Sometime, I would love to sit down and have a long dialogue with you about your work, as there are so many nuances and questions layered between the layers. Deep gratitude to you for your work and especially for your encouragement and validation of others’ experiences. There is sometimes a lot of fear for me, of following that intuition, and doubt about what it is even that I am feeling, and this was a very timely reminder to move through that fear.

    Thank you, beloved sister, may your dreams be filled with jewels of intuition and dances of Eros. <3

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    1. Hello beloved sister and dear friend,

      I’m so grateful we got to have the convivial conversation we wanted to have, and in person, on the mutual growth in this dialogue. Thank you for sharing the profound fruits of your path here with all the readers. I very much appreciate your expression of seeing the divine Beloved in every face, caress of hair, strand of life. I would recommend an essay by Robert Augustus Masters’ essay on “Mature Monogamy,” during which he describes that (in a heterosexual context for this excerpt), two lovers who drown in romantic-spiritual love relate as follows: “she is not just a woman to him, but all women and Woman Incarnate, and he is to her not just a man, but all men, and Man Incarnate. This is not metaphysical mush, but a living reality, full-blooded and
      more often than not ecstatic.” I found your experience here to be really fleshing out for me what that assertion feels like, through the grounding of what you felt and your specific access point of the divine love of Isis and Osiris. Thank you deeply for that grounding! You may access Masters’ article through this link: http://www.robertmasters.com/newsletter/July2006.pdf

      And yes, one of my favorite points that you brought up is on the relationship between the Shamanistic study that Tedlock did and her findings on the difference between the feminine and masculine path, on the one hand, and how that relates to the prescribed performer’s path in our patriarchal culture. It is definitely something to keep on discussing and re-creating. Yes, I can’t help but be shook up at the brimming potential of a performative path that focuses more on bringing out the healing and generative potential of an audience, rather than showing off the performer’s skill. In fact, my favorite artists tend to do that to some extent, and I know from speaking with you that, come to think of it, your favorite dance instructors tend to bring out the same fluid relationship of teacher and student, performer and receiver.

      Yes, the trust and the doubt, the knowing and not knowing what one feels, the feeling many things at once and the few astute moments of intuitive clarity. I can very much relate. Thank you for entering this vortex of sharing as you are. It would not have fulfilled that intention without the brilliant, heartfelt, and honorably naked comments above. I hope that afterwards we may each choose to clad ourselves as we may, to reflect the treasures within at our own terms – especially as performers. Thank you sister <3

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