Towards a Mystic Understanding of Erotic Knowing and Gender Identity

by laylarevery

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


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.



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.  



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.