The Sublimation of Desire
How to alchemize the energy of desire into bliss and creativity
Desire is a powerful impulse…it drives us and it can drive us mad. My summer has been dedicated to understanding this deeply embodied influence. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the purification of desire here. That experience was about cultivating discernment: being able to tell the difference between the soul’s authentic wants, and desires arising from trauma, grasping, and attachment.
Since writing that essay I’ve been experiencing a Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, or frequency bias, around desire. In other words, it seems to be coming up all the time now. Students, clients and friends are coming forward with questions about how to work with desire — especially amorous desire and desire that cannot be acted on. We also see the continual emergence of public scandals like Cuomo’s (only the most recent) that result from sexual repression, distorted desire, and deviant power. Last but not least, I’m enjoying my first romantic relationship in two years with a man who lives across the country. So, the sublimation of desire is a hot topic for me right now.
I am proposing sublimation as a constructive way to engage the energy of desire when it cannot be immediately appeased or when one wants to deepen their experience of bliss. My theory and practice comes from study of Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, Western Alchemy, Mysticism, the Feminine, and embodiment through yoga, dance, sacred sexuality, meditation, and relational practices. I am approaching the topic from a spiritual point of view, but not from an ascetic one. As a woman and a yogi, I’ve come to the end of my patience with transcendent spiritual attitudes and schools that deny the body, put sexuality in shadow, denigrate women, and then propagate shame, guilt, and sexual misconduct within their ranks.
We can see that desire is very destructive when suppressed, acted on unconsciously, and manipulated as it is in our mainstream culture — advertising, media, religious fundamentalism, capitalism…But, it is also a real and powerful drive that has the potential to propel us into deeper relationship with our Self, each other, and the planet. Worked with consciously, it could be one of the most important medicines for these times. It is a soul salve when accessed and acted on ethically; one with the heat of passion, the alchemical fire of transformation, built in. It makes things happen!
I can’t help but feel like more open communication around desire and sexuality would bring so much to light and eliminate some of the unconscious and base drives that are degrading to individuals and the fabric of society.
In this essay, I’ll offer some techniques for working with desire:
A reclaiming of energies that are being directed towards objects of desire as an escape from our pain.
A guide to surfing the waves of desire in order to build towards sustained states of bliss.
Practices and exercises that can relatively quickly and effectively transmute desire into free energy that can then be refocused towards creativity and healing in our own bodies and with others.
All of this without losing the delicious, sensual heart of desire as an urge we have to connect with life itself and other beings in deep and meaningful ways. We aren’t becoming monks here, we’re learning to live a life of passion that doesn’t cause unnecessary harm. Our desire is sacred when it brings us closer to Truth.
What is Sublimation?
Sublimation is the term used in chemistry to describe the phase change from a solid directly to a gas (skipping the liquid state). This is a big shift and one that requires a strong container, and a strong catalyst.
It is also a term used in psychology — first by Freud — to describe the channeling of “base” desires and impulses into more “elevated” pursuits. For example: childhood sadist urges can be sublimated into a successful career as a surgeon, or taboo sexual urges can be sublimated into great works of art. Freud pointed to sublimation as the triumph of civilization and rationality over animal drives.
I’m not a fan of this definition of sublimation because it ignores the need for healing core wounds and rests on a righteous and narrow judgment about what is base/animal and what is elevated/successful.
Jung’s evolution of the concept is much better because he recognized the necessity of working with shadow (and trauma) to integrate unconscious drives. Drives are only dangerous when they are unconscious or repressed. He saw sublimation as a means of learning how to work with them, bring them into the light, and transform their power into creative, free energy…gold.
Sublimation is part of the royal art [alchemy] where the true gold is made. Of this Freud knows nothing; worse still, he barricades all the paths that could lead to true sublimation…It is not a voluntary and forcible channeling of instinct into a spurious field of application, but an alchemical transformation for which fire and prima materia are needed. Sublimation is a great mystery. [Jung, Letters, ed. By G. Adler and A. Jaffé, Princeton University Press (1974), vol. 1, 171]
The “mystery” he refers to here is answered for me in the philosophy and practices of Tantra. Among other things, Tantra offers an embodied alchemy where we turn the energy that blocks us on itself to achieve great stores of wisdom. For example, the transformed aspect of anger is mirror-like wisdom; the transformed aspect of ignorance/delusion is all-encompassing wisdom; the transformed aspect of envy is all-accomplishing wisdom; the transformed aspect of pride is the wisdom of equanimity; and the transformed aspect of passion is the wisdom of discernment. We’re not trying to get rid of the poisons, but to transmute them by reclaiming and repurposing the power in them.
To get there we use a kind of homeopathic process— fighting fire with fire, so to speak. If fear is blocking, we become fierce deities; more fearsome than the fear itself. If desire is blocking, we establish ourselves in a desire beyond grasping. We use the power of sensual attraction to draw us into higher states: burning the fuel of mundane passion to ignite the passion of limitless bliss. Our longing for another (or a thing) is a mere echo of our longing for the Divine. Sublimation can transform the power in intense longing into activated spiritual will. The ideas and exercises below pull from the Tantric teachings to offer a way to work with desirous urges constructively.
Sublimation of desire keeps us centered in truth (wisdom of discernment) — we can neither be pulled towards something or someone because of shadow impulses, nor can we hide out in the empty halls of detachment and aversion. When we sublimate our desires, we reside in the central channel, not leaning in too much or leaning out too much. We retain our agency in the situation and we can act responsibly.
Actively Working with Sexual Desire
Maybe you have a new lover you can’t stop thinking about. Maybe you have a long-distance lover. Maybe your love is unattainable, unavailable, or unrequited. Maybe you have a long-time partner who still turns you on. Maybe you are yearning for a type of love you had in the past. No matter the circumstances, there is a specific quality in the desire of passion, the desire to touch and be touched, hold and be held, kiss and be kissed, the desire to enter or be entered. What happens when we are overcome with desire for someone or something? It depends on the nature of the desire, of course.
Sexual desire is an incredibly potent fuel for transformation — this should not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever felt it. It can be almost unbearable in its intensity when it is active. Sexual passion is, in fact, the kind of fire we can use to sublimate the gross material (prima materia) — physical, emotional, and mental dross — in the system. When we harness it and work with it consciously, we stimulate expansion and can access profound states of bliss, peace, and ecstasy. We can use it to pierce the veil to a more intimate relationship with Reality. We can use it to awaken and to heal.
The question is how. There is a very thorough and sophisticated answer to that question — how? — and it exists in the body of Tantric wisdom.
Working with the energy of desire
What I am presenting here is just a taste, a superficial, but functional view of a process that could help. It’s not a path or an answer. It is a technique on offer…if it works for you, great. If not, perhaps there is a better solution for you. These things are personal.
What most people (especially men, but not exclusively) do when they feel overwhelming sexual desire that can’t be acted on is one of three things:
- repress the desire (it doesn’t actually disappear, but goes underground)
- compartmentalize and ignore the feelings
- masturbate to reach a climax and release
The problem with repression is that it puts the desire in shadow where it will most certainly run the show and orchestrate situations where it can act out. It will continue to operate undercover, making us say and do things that are unexpected/uncontrolled and potentially dangerous. Affairs and indiscretions arise from repressed sexual impulses; shame is at work here; and ultimately the energies stagnating in the system can lead to disease.
Compartmentalization is a little better because there is at least an acknowledgement of the situation. The person recognizes that they are turned on or consumed with longing while also acknowledging that it’s not appropriate or a good time to act on that impulse. Maybe they are at work or with the kids or occupied with something else. Maybe the object of desire is unavailable. In a way, some degree of compartmentalization is important and healthy. There is a discipline that the mature practitioner can work with; a knowing that we can come back to the issue and work with it proactively when the time is riper. However, compartmentalization becomes a problem when it turns into avoidance or when we override the body’s needs repeatedly. The best time to work with an intense sensation is as it arises; when it is genuinely present in the system.
We have to really listen to the body. There are times when the body is screaming for attention or tired of being ignored — or maybe it has a tremendous gift of insight to offer. In those moments, it is best to rearrange the schedule, or do whatever you can to make space to work with what is arising as it arises. This is always the most potent way to work with body sensations, but not always the most convenient…so, we have to be discerning. It’s a shame when people are so enslaved to the system, they completely override the body’s wisdom all the time. Eventually, the body stops cooperating, stops communicating, and shuts down. When this happens, we’re also at risk for disease, depression, and loss of direction.
Finally, the problem with climactic release is that it might feel good in the moment, but it dissipates the potential of that energy; which has tremendous longevity at its core. We end up using a very, very high quality fuel for a quick combustion. It’s a waste, quite simply. Also, many men (less so with women, for whom orgasm has a different physiological process) lose vital energy in the release of their sexual fluids. Release is probably a decent route for anyone burning up with passion and unable to do the practices of sublimation I’ll describe here. But, I really believe anyone can do these practices and will benefit from making use of our body’s beautiful urges and energies. This is not a sweeping dismissal of masturbation at all — self-stimulation can be a great way to practice sublimation and work with your own orgasmic process. All I want to say here is that there are ways to work with that energy that don’t deplete the system completely.
According to one of my teachers, Dr. Nida Chenagtsang,
“Most of the time we think that the aim of sexual intercourse is to have a regular, short orgasm. This kind of orgasm is a powerful experience of course, but once that powerful experience is done and gone, it evaporates. We experience a high sudden peak of happiness, followed by a very low trough or dip, and then sleep…The Karmamudra yogis and yoginis of the past did a lot of research to understand what orgasm is. They wanted to know how many levels of orgasm humans are capable of, how humans can enhance their orgasms and experience them better, how they can use them as a powerful tool to transform their energy and mind.” –Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss by Dr. Nida Chenagtsang, p. 246
Correcting Some Beliefs
There are a few important beliefs to address before we get into the practices. These beliefs are foundational to being able to sublimate desire, to being an alchemist. We have to have some good knowledge before we can enter the laboratory and start working with the raw materials.
Bliss is your natural state. The way to access and abide in bliss is to integrate or liberate anything that is not bliss. We have to know in our bones that bliss is always available to us and our birthright! Bliss is not some unusual and rare thing achieved accidentally when we happen to experience a moment of wonder or sublime beauty. Bliss is right here and open to you at any moment.
Sexual drive, desire, and passion are sustainable energies that are not linear and uni-directional, but cyclical…more like waves on the ocean than an arrow shot at a target. When we can ride the waves, we can surf for a long, long time. Endurance, stamina…these are qualities built with practice. The idea is to prolong our experience of bliss; to prolong the amount of time we spend in the ecstatic or orgasmic state.
A lot of men have learned or been taught that their passion, erection, and orgasm are fleeting. There is an urgency in their expression of desire, because there is a fear that it will disappear and then they won’t be able to perform. This cycle arises from a disembodied and absent kind of sexuality where the stimulus is usually very visual and flat, where the interaction is surface, and where the sexual experience is happening mainly in the realm of fantasy (even with the partner present). This can also be the attitude or belief of the man who has had unfulfilling or unpleasant sexual experiences. Women can also feel urgent and goal-oriented around their arousal and release. Everyone is working with some level of performance-anxiety and scarcity! It’s a microcosm of or reflection of what’s so present in our day-to-day culture.
The art of arousal is one of precision, discipline, and a deep trust in the natural impulses of the body. We can begin to explore this by incorporating the practice of pausing and presencing into our sexuality. When we feel super aroused, we can do the counterintuitive thing: pause…suspend action…just feel and be in the intensity of the experience. Reduce stimulation for a minute and come back into the body, become present. Taking a moment to reconnect to the actual waves of passion flowing through you, the space, a partner…this can help you feel coherent with what is going on and there’s less forcing, less fear, less urgency…which automatically reduces the pressure and stress and usually leads to truly blissful states. Learning that bliss and desire are sustainable is not an idea you can take in through the head, you need a direct experience of this truth in the body. You need to live it to know it.
There is nothing shameful or taboo about your real desires. If there is…it’s probably not desire, but a wound seeking attention. There is a lot of work we all can do around cleaning up and purifying our desire. We can heal the parts that would seek to use others or hurt others the way we’ve been hurt. We must respect the boundaries of others. We must have consent when we enter a sexual dynamic with another — even on the subtle and energetic planes. I share this belief not to exonerate deviant behaviors, but to those people I’ve met in my healing practice who want so badly to be met fully in intimacy, who want the kind of sex their marriage is not offering, who want to express themselves in (non-harmful) ways their partner is not comfortable with, who long for a kind of love that feels possible, but has always evaded them. Desire can help point the way to what it is you really want…when the signal is clear. Communication is the sister tool here…we could alleviate so much shame by talking to each other more about what we want and how we feel about that. Really being seen and received in our desires is so important.
Finally, passion is a servant, not a master. Passion and desire when they arise are in service to something bigger and that is usually the desire for union or communion with the Divine. Sometimes, this desire harkens all the way back to our primordial state of being and the experience of the infant who was actually merged with the mother. There is a longing to return to a state of being that is more complete, not so seemingly isolated in our own skin and experience. Yes, the best way to put it is we want to merge with the “other” and find that we are not two, but one. This is a very sacred adventure. In a sense, passion fuels almost all of the activities of the soul here on earth — from prayer to healing to caring for others to expressing our inspiration in the world through art and creation. Passion is the vehicle for the soul’s work in the world; for spirit to materialize here.
The spiritual traditions that work with sexual energy — any subtle energies of the body like Prana, Qi, Kundalini, Tummo, etc. — are clear that this energy is a carrier of sacred potential. It is one of the most potent tools we have for awakening in this time (Kali Yuga). We are born through orgasm, our natural state is orgasmic bliss. On this level, there is no difference between the passion of the artist writing a song or performing a musical piece or painting and couples making love. The Kama Sutra is the perennial classic that views and expounds sex as an art form. The traditions that recognize the primacy of sexual energy and creativity in all human endeavors have developed sophisticated techniques for mastering and managing sexual energy and urges. This is because they know how potent these energies are. Ancient yogis learned through trial and error how to work with these winds and fires in the body and we can, too.
How we do it. Practices.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ve divided these practices into bite-sized chunks and tried to avoid a lot of esoteric language. They all work together. If anything is not clear, I hope you will reach out to me directly. None of these is dangerous when undertaken consciously. But, always be your own teacher and feel into what is right for you. If anything here doesn’t feel good, ignore it.
- Diffuse the energy
When desire arises in the body in a concentrated way at the genitals (or the sacral center or the heart), it can be helpful and beneficial to diffuse the energy throughout the body. This can be during intercourse or whenever the feeling of urgency is present. Tantra has a number of specific techniques for circulating energy and withholding orgasm. You can learn about these techniques from folks like Mantak Chia if you’re interested. What I want to introduce is just the starting point of bringing awareness to how the energy is already flowing.
Let’s imagine you feel a burning desire for your lover and you can’t be with them. This energy can be distracting and even uncomfortable if we don’t address it. When you feel intense desire, find a quiet place to sit and instead of bearing down on the sensations or trying to dissipate them by thinking of other things, open your inner channels. Make your whole body available to the sensations. See what happens if you bring the intensity up into the head, through the limbs, out the bottom of the feet. You have 72,000 subtle channels (nadis), so use them!
Dissipate and distribute the heat and pressure through the inner circuitry so you don’t blow a fuse. This heat is very powerful for clearing energetic blockages and moving stuck energy. So, go ahead and let it cruise through the whole system. Expand the space element in the body and give the fire space to move. See how this changes the nature of the desire. You can almost feel the literal sublimation of a coarse and dense energy (solid) into a gaseous and etheric, even sublime, energy.
If it helps, we can look at a map. In the Tibetan Tantra there is a small red thiglé (ball of concentrated subtle and endocrine energy — like a subtle gland) at the base of the central channel, four fingers below the navel and back towards the spine. This thiglé generates a sacred fire. Its complement is a white thiglé in the middle of the head (near the pituitary gland). This thiglé produces a cool bliss as an almost liquid/plasma light. The heat from the red thiglé begins a process of melting the white thiglé, sending bliss washing down through the body from head to toe (and back again). Practitioners use their awareness of the thiglés to manage the flow of heat and bliss throughout the body. You don’t have to be able to sense the thiglés to do this. Initially, you can just imagine the process. When too much heat builds up in the lower thiglé, raise it and feel the coolness of the white thiglé’s bliss washing your body, cooling you down and putting you into a sustained state of radiant bliss.
2. Feel sensation as empty
We usually attach stories to the sensations in our body: I feel sad/angry/happy/excited because (fill in the blank with the story). Sometimes the stories are helpful and true, but often they are a refuge for NOT feeling: a place for blame, shame, subterfuge — the ego’s attempts to discharge, and control intense and overwhelming feelings.
When you feel the fire of passion or the ache of desire in your body, try to experience the sensations without story. Experience them as empty — empty of meaning, stories, cause and effect. Eliminate the part that is telling you, “Oh, this is happening because they did this…” or “I need this to happen or else…” Just feel the sensations as the movement of energy. Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. See what the desire feels like in your system if you don’t label it. This can make it easier to move the energy through the body and diffuse it. Feel its power and intensity without making it mean S-E-X. What it can “mean” is that something creative is underway and you are the ground. How exciting.
3. Create a bliss field
When making space for the energy of arousal and passion to move more broadly, it can be very helpful to create a bliss field. We imagine we are sitting in a big field of bliss, like the environment itself is a giant orgasm. Depictions of deities in union (yab yum) can be very helpful for this. You can see the bliss field they are creating in the depiction of their halos and radiant “gift waves of bliss.” If we can expand our experience from beyond the confines of this small bliss in this small and isolated body to a sensation of being connected to the Primordial Bliss Field, it tends to redirect the energies from being hyper-focused on ONE object/person to being ecstatically directed towards union with the whole of experience. This is a very powerful practice. You have to use your imagination, but it will really elevate the quality and nature of your desire and can bring us closer to the awakened state. The hooks of fixated desire can spontaneously liberate in the all-consuming nature of the Divine Bliss.
Those bliss waves, by the way are real and they truly do create and strong and positive effect in the collective field of consciousness. On the level of interconnectedness of being, you are doing a service to humanity when you radiate such bliss alone or with a partner.
4. Deliberately move energies
Movement can also be helpful for the sublimation desire. As with the sitting practices, conscious and dynamic movement of the desire energies can distribute them through the system and into a broader expression of creativity and vitality. We can dance the way we feel: slithering, undulating, or thrusting in space. I love the musical artist, Prince, for this. He was a master sublimator of sexual energies — so many musicians are.
At a time in my own life when I was awakening to my sexual potency I was married and a new mother. I was — at that time — unable to act on my sexual urges and so I danced regularly (5 Rhythms). In a safe and skillfully-held healing container, I was able to feel my sexual self and express her without crossing any lines. It was so deeply healing for me, and I dare say for many of the people (men and women) I danced with!
5. Working with attachment and projection
There is a beautiful practice in Tantra called “releasing the consort.” The consort is the sacred lover and divine partner. In tantric practice, it is important that both parties come to the experience centered in their own being and whole in their energy field. When you are committed to such a deep state of union, it’s possible to get lost in the other. So, it is advisable on a regular basis to reclaim your energies and clarify/purify the nature of the desire you have for each other. Otherwise, entanglements and attachments can easily happen (as they do so often in any kind of sexual dynamic). When desire is coming from shadow and attaching to the shadow of the other, it can be a strong and destructive ride. We obviously want to avoid this; but, even obvious things become less obvious in the heat of passion.
The practice is simply to sit across from, facing, and close to your consort. Maybe knees touching or a few feet apart. This can be done long-distance (virtually) or even without the other person present at all. It’s useful any time you feel that part of you is attached to the other and initiating an unhealthy kind of desire for their presence. The practice is to sit with eyes closed or open and to really take in the wholeness of the other. Really feel their presence. Feel how you feel towards them. Sitting squarely in your own seat, feel how parts of you move towards them and maybe some parts want to get up and run away. Watch any movement of your own energy that is automatic or impulsive or surprising. Just watch the feelings and sensation arise and allow them to dissolve. Feel them, but don’t make anything out of them. Avoid telling yourself stories. Just watch your own energy. Is it confused? Is it all over the place and diffuse? Is it anchored in the other person? Have you lost yourself? Are you feeling frightened? Vulnerable? Ashamed? Naked? Whatever you feel is fine. Just be present to it. Like working with a wild stallion, steadiness is everything. Eventually, you will feel your energies begin to fall back into place and calm down. You will be able to see how you project onto this partner and how many stories are there around your desire and relating. You will have a much more clear picture of the situation. And you will feel more yourself, more in control of your own experience, than before.
What can arise is a fear that if we disentangle from the consort or lover, they will go away. Or the attraction will disappear. This fear can be intense. If you can stay with that, you might find the opposite is true. The consort is happy to be in their own energy field — not hooked — and will come to you voluntarily and eagerly. You can merge again from a place of clarity rather than being entangled in shadow agreements that bind, but are ultimately illusory and cause pain. If the desire does dissolve completely, honor that with your partner. It’s probably going to be temporary (see above the cyclical nature of desire). Stay committed to being in a healthy relationship to your own desire and wish that for your partner, too.
6. Be Creative
It has certainly been the case for me at times that I have been in beautiful sexual dynamics with people I couldn’t see nearly as much as my body would have liked. At these times, I used many of these practices to work with the sexual and spiritual energy of desire and longing. I also found these times to be very potent creatively. Write poems expressing your desire. Write a short story that brings your fantasy to life. Write a song for the beloved. Paint them with loving attention. Make a gift for that person. We can use that energy that wants so badly to connect to connect with life and with all people through the expression of our inspiration. How many great works of art were created out of yearning?! Countless. Countless! In a way, orgasmic satiation is so complete it doesn’t really need anything else; doesn’t need to do anything. So, while we’re burning we can really connect with the muse and make magic happen.
This essay just scratches the surface of what we can learn and deepen into when we begin working with the subtle body and sexual, creative energies. My hope in writing this is that it will serve to bring us deeper into our bodies and our embodied experience. The sexual (or sensual) experience is so central to this human body and to our lives, it’s a shame we engage with it mostly unconsciously.
Mastering sexual energy and desire is a yoga that can be undertaken by anyone with motivation. The potential is to stand in your center and be discerning with your choices — to be a sacred steward of these beautiful powers. The Shakti must be respected and revered, otherwise it will break things or retreat. All of this can be done within oneself or with a partner.
Becoming more attuned to these energies and capable of working with them could alleviate a lot of tension, dissatisfaction, frustration, anger, and reactivity in the world. My own clients are often people in positions of power who go to work every day sexually frustrated. This can create problems of all kinds. The power of sexual alchemy must go hand-in-hand with wisdom, ethics, and responsibility. People who are masterful with their sexual energy, but don’t have ethics are dangerous (how many guru sex scandals do we need to go through?).
Ultimately, the motivation for sublimation of desire has to come from an embodied recognition that sexual energy is powerful and when channeled effectively, very healing. Not just for ourselves, but for our closest relations and for the collective as a whole. The Tibetan Tantric practitioners worked with sacred sexuality as a kind of technology for birthing new worlds out of wisdom and bliss. They were radiating bliss waves and pouring this vital essence into the creation of a Buddhaverse (Buddha-Universe) for all sentient beings. Coherent, blissful energy generated through any means — including sexually — is medicine for all of us and critical to bringing us into our bodies and home to this precious planet. Being embodied and present is the only way the healing can happen here and now.
I offer this as a small step in a better direction and my genuine awe and appreciation goes out to the teachers and practitioners of sexual alchemy and ethical sacred sexuality through all time. May their wisdom guide us!