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KEEN TANTRIC VISION
by Sam Keen; Appendix A, The Passionate Life,
1983, San Francisco: Harper & Row
We come to love not by finding a perfect person,
but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly. --SK
I knew philosopher Sam Keen as a neighbor and friend in the Methow Valley in northermost Washington state in the early 1980s, when he published this book. His interest in Tantra, his zest for the joyful life and for his passionate new marriage were abundantly clear, and a testament to his clarity of spirit. We danced on several occasions under starlit skies "To a Dancing God." Therefore I have included this excerpt from his book on loving. As well as a professor of philosophy and religion, and godfather of the men's movement, Sam was also a contributing editor with Psychology Today.
Sam coined a term, homo analgesia for "the species that can remain insensitive to pain or pleasure without the loss of consciousness." According to Sam, "the erotic myth holds that love is not primarily something we make or do, but something we *are.* We do not define it so much as it defines us. Before it is ever manifest as an activity or behavior, love is that impulse, motivation, or energy that links us to the whole web of life." He asserts that the passionate life is a continuing dialogue between self and other...a "loving combat." To become who we are we must learn to westle. Push-pull. Yes-no. Love must be muscular, to enter the contest, to endure the agony, of the clash between points of view. Mature love is about the transformation of desire. To love is to be about the task of healing.
Tantra, tantric yoga, or kundalini yoga is an ancient philosophy and practice linking sexuality and consciousness that has appeared in widely separated time and places. (See Arthur Avalon, The Serpent Power, New York; Down Publications, 1974, or Mircea Eliade, Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, New York; Bollingen, 1958.) It has cropped up in different forms in India, Tibet, and Mexico has well as in the writings of the alchemists, in mystical Christianity, and in theosophy. It central idea, which seems to have occurred independently to a large number of early thinkers and spiritual adventurers, is that the body contains a number (usually seven) of physio-psychic centers that may become suffused by a current of "sexual" energy that leads to an expansion of consciousness or enlightenment. Although there is a lush variety of symbols in the various traditions, we can identify a common core of beliefs.
In Tantra, as in most forms of sophisticated mysticism, there is a fundamental belief that the human spirit and body are united with the cosmos. It can be stated in several ways. As below, so above; deeper in is further our; the microcosm reflects the macrocosm; every level of hierarchy of being can be fond within man; the human mind is a hologram of the universe.
In the concrete symbolism of religion, this belief is frequently presented in a pictorial way by showing how the human spine, with its seven ascending centers of energy (or chakras), is analogous to the seven-story cosmic mountain--Mt. Meru, Mt. Sinai or Mt. Analogue. This mountain-spine forms a world pole (axis mundi) uniting the lower realms (Hades, the unconscious), middle earth (the everyday world of the ego), and the heavens (the ideal but unseen structures, powers and presences that underlie and in-form all visible reality.) Each of the seven centers of the body vibrates with its cosmic counterpart. We tune in to different levels of reality.
Physical/mental/spiritual illness results from any blockage that prevents us from communication or resonance. Health is being full-bodied, allowing the entire range of cosmic rhythms and intentions to inhabit and harmonize the various physio-psycho-spiritual systems within the body. The story of how we move from dis-ease to health is identical with the account of the ascent of consciousness and the metamorphosis of EROS. We become whole by becoming citizens of each of the seven kingdoms of love.
The tantric consensus is that there is a single primal energy-spirit-consciousness that flows through all the cosmos and informs each person. The path of maturation, enlightenment, or transformation involves allowing this power (which is called kundalini or serpent power in the East) to rise up the spine and infuse each of the centers.
In tantric imagery, the food that nourishes the nervous system during the elevation of consciousness is the seminal fluid in men and the erotic fluids in women. The sexual fluid stream up the hollow channel in the middle of the spine (the susumna) and floods each of the chakras until it reaches the brain, at which point enlightenment occurs, with accompanying ecstasy. As the concentrated energy (called variously prana, chi, holy spirit, libido, or orgone) passes through the chakras, it purifies the body and mind and reunites sexuality and spirituality.
Among some scholars and esoteric aspirants, there is a tendency to take the symbolism so literally that it makes nonsense out of Tantra. Much of the interpretive literature discusses quite seriously whether there really is a channel in the spine through which sexual fluid might rise. Such literalism misses the point. The most valuable thing we may learn from tantric symbolism is a vision of how eros may be transformed, of how sexuality matures, of how desire expands, of how motivation changes, in the course of an authentic life journey.
Consider, for instance, the symbolic meaning in the image of the sexual fluid as the fuel of consciousness. It is a fact of science as well as an abiding mystery that the intentions and history of the entire evolutionary process is carried in the genes and chromosomes that flow together with the union of sperm and ovum. Whatever nature or God is striving to create through this long drama of evolution is implicit in our drive to reproduce. The sexual organs do respond to the entire symphony of being. There is an intentionality, a telos, a purpose, a meaning, a direction encoded within our quest for pleasure. If we understand eros in its fullest sense, we my discover in sexual experience an impulse that may guide us in the unfoldment of consciousness. Perhaps our deepening desire is our surest path toward the sacred. Why should it be so startling to suggest that the cortex (a late-comer in the evolutionary story) might eventually fully understand the cosmic intention that is programmed into the sexual fluids? (Might the image of the kundalini serpent winding its way up the spine be an intuitive prefiguration of the helix of the DNA?)
We make the best use of Tantra if we play with its symbolism. I suggest that the seven chakras are symbols of different stages of life and the philosophies and erotic practices that accompany them. The kundalini symbolism is an early developmental psychology. Each chakra represents and orientation to life that is appropriate to a certain stage of the pilgrimage of the psyche. These stages and their correlation to the progression of consciousness and the transformations of eros suggested in this work are as follows:
1. Anal Chakra. Symbolizes bonding or possession, being held or grasping.
2. Genital chakra. Symbolizes the orientation to life as pleasure, play and game.
Chakras 1 and 2 are parallel to the psychological development of the child, and the sexual awakening of adolescence. The rebel impulse is not encouraged within Eastern philosophy or culture.
3. The solar plexus. Symbolizes the orientation to life as power.
Chakra 3 is parallel to the psychological development of the adult.
4. The heart chakra. Symbolizes falling in love with the ideal, romance, passion.
5. The throat chakra. Symbolizes purgatory, repentance, eating one's projections.
Chakras 4 and 5 parallel the psychological development of the outlaw, the first love affair with a transpersonal self, and the process of metanoia necessary to free the spirit from the myths, roles, and defense mechanisms that were a part of the adult life with its orientation to power and position.
6. The third eye chakra. Symbolizes the single vision.
7. The crown chakra. Symbolizes the homecoming, return of the Bodhisattva to the world, to live by the rule of compassion.
Chakras 6 and 7 parallel the psychological development of the lover, the unitive glimpse, and the return to the world follow the vocation of the healer.
Sam Keen on Men, Women, Sex and Spirituality
An Interview with Sam Keen
Copyright © 1993, 1997 by Bert H. Hoff
This article appeared in the May 1993 issue of M.E.N. Magazine
Bert: What do you see as the major issues in men-women relationships?
Sam: Power, equality and violence are the major issues. On top of that we like to talk about
communication, as in Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand. Very often we turn
the big issue between men and women into a communication issue, but I think it's a lot
deeper issue than that. The gender arrangement that we've had in this culture previous to
the last 25 or 30 years has been one in which there has been more of an inequality in terms
of political, social and financial power. Men have had a dominant role. In order to change
that women have been coming into the workplace and in the political order and claiming
their own power, they begin to encounter the old thing, which is a gender relationship.
That's where, for me, the real, crucial issue has to be violence. Men have had a virtual
monopoly on violence, and that means a virtual monopoly on power. As women see
violence done to them, they are having to re-think about their relationship to power, and also
to military power. That's what I tried to show in The Faces of the Enemy. But I do believe
that when you define the male in terms of the warrior role, then you're going to define him in
terms of power and women are going to behind the victim end of the power-violence game.
Bert: Does that suggest that women need to move towards a relationship with violence?
Sam: Well, they need to take equal responsibility for the management of violence. We need
to see violence in terms of systems. One of the biggest changes in our thinking in the last
twenty years is to think in terms of systems, to stop just looking at individual things and to
look at interactions. That is the one thing we haven't done in terms of men, women and
violence. We haven't looked at their interactions. We haven't looked at violence as a
system. There are many different players who participate in the violence system. Mostly
what we see now is the victims of violence. In my terms, we have a way of thinking that
creates "guilty producers" and "innocent consumers" of violence.
Just like the Exxon Valdez incident. We point our fingers at Exxon and say that they are
"bad people," while we all drive along in automobiles that hog up gasoline and think nothing
of our consumption of oil. We create the demand, and they were merely supplying the
demand. So, I think the whole violence and warfare system flows from the fact that we
made a decision in our culture that this is what we wanted to do. Violence against women
is a product of this system. We're going to have to stop thinking of this issue in terms of
men and women. That is the big issue, the hard issue, what kind of a world is it going to be
if we do this re-thinking of gender. What I like to say is eliminating gender. "Help stamp out
gender" would be my bumper sticker.
Bert: One image that comes to mind is a t.v. news scene from a bar outside Fort Lewis
during the Gulf War. The soldiers' wives and girlfriends were as violent as the men. "We're
going to kick their butt."
Sam: Right. If you'll remember, the approval rating went up to somewhere between 89 and
94 percent. What that is, is a vote on the macho image of man. Everyone who tied a yellow
ribbon on a tree said, "Yes, we want men to be violent."
Bert: In The Passionate Life: Stages of Loving you said, "Our only real hope for a more
kindly and passionate pattern of relationships is our willingness to look at the ways women
and men collude in perpetrating the long-standing battle between the sexes and the warfare
Sam: That's right. I still think that's an important passage.
Bert: In our last issue we had an article (Scott Abraham, "Take Care of Your Mother -- Or
Else") in which the author said we needed a safe container in which to express our rage
against our mothers, our sisters, and other women.
Sam: In a process of de-repressing any emotion, when it comes out, it's not going to come
out neatly. It's true that when we express our rage, when the shit hits the fan, everyone gets
sprayed. Hopefully, that doesn't last very long. It's not very individually creative, or socially
creative. But, basically, that's what we have now, is a lot of people expressing their rage
about everything. The problem is that it's making a pretty sick body politic. We've got a
political situation now where everybody's a victim and everybody's needs to have a Divine
right to rage. Rage is an entitlement. We all have a right to be outraged, because we don't
have this, we don't have that, we don't have the other. Disregard the fact that, despite what
we don't have, we're the wealthiest culture in the history of civilization.
I think this is a dangerous idea. Eastern wisdom have a different outlook. You have to
recognize rage. Certainly, you have to recognize it. You can't forgive somebody unless you
have felt the rage. But I think that the idea, somehow, that you have to go out and express
that is a dangerous notion. There's something between blowing off inappropriately and
repression. First of all, there's recognition. And then what I guess I would say, is "rationing
out the rage."
My own way of doing this was that I learned to wrestle when I was a young adult, in my
mid-twenties. And part of that had to do with rage. I found a very, very great way to handle it.
Also, your rage can be utilized in relevant situations. If you're in a relationship with a
woman, you're really encounter the rage. As long as you don't give anybody the full load of a
rage that's been building up for years. But, let's face it, that's also going to happen. You're
not going to go through a relationship always mature, with all the emotions honed down to
their proper size. No, part of what happens in a relationship is that you project your "stuff"
onto other people. Then we've got to take it off. So, you're going to project your rage onto
somebody else, and then gradually take it back.. What makes a relationship strong is not
that you never vent inappropriate rage, but that they keep moving away from that.
Bert: You say in Fire in the Belly, "Honor your anger, but before you express it, sort it out
the righteous from the unrighteous. Immediately after a storm the water runs muddy; rage
is indiscriminate. But once the water runs clear, express your outrage against anyone who
has violated your being."
Sam: That's good advice. I don't always follow it, but ..... When I get mad at my wife,
sometimes I just blow up, and yell very loud. Then what I have to do afterwards is sort it out,
and say what I'm sorry fore, and figure out which part is mine and which is hers. I mean,
ideally, I would never do all that, but I haven't reached that stage yet.
Bert: We haven't here, either. But what my wife Bernetta is discovering is that every once
in a while she will give vent at her rage, and she is amazed at how terrified some people
are when she begins to show it, because she's a very mild and gentle person under 99.9
percent of the circumstances.
Sam: Generally speaking, sin and forgiveness is a better way to handle a relationship than
the illusion of perfection. We learn from our mistakes. In intimacy, all of our childhood,
infantile desires and emotions are elicited.
Bert: One of the things that's said is that men are unwilling to commit. Clarissa Estés says
that men and women are both afraid to commit, because they're afraid of the "little death" of
the self that happens in a relationship. That brought to mind Robert Bly's poem "A Third
Body." " ... they obey a third body that they share in common. They have made a promise to
love that body. Age may come, parting may come, death will come. A man and a woman sit
near each other. As they breathe they feed someone we do not know, someone we know
of, whom we have never seen."
Sam: The old word was "sacrifice," which is a very good word because what it actually
meant was "to make sacred." We have a stupid notion that came out of the human
potential movement, that "I'm going to do my thing, and you're going to do your thing, and
we shouldn't compromise." It even gets confused with the whole notion of co-dependency.
"Oh, oh, I'm beginning to see myself through your eyes." We don't have much relationship
with sacrifice. Nothing gets done, nothing of value is created in life, without sacrifice.
Raising a child requires an enormous amount of sacrifice.
Or take the notion of compromise, or "co-promise." You're binding yourself to a promise.
But these are voluntary bounds, verses the bonds that are imposed on us by others. Bonds
that we take on, in order to create in our lives.
Bert: I understand that some people are delaying having children, or not having children,
because they're not willing to make the sacrifices involved.
Sam: Well, that's always been true in our culture. One of the sicknesses of our culture is
that we value our children so little.
Bert: And we're unwilling to make that sacredness, that sacrifice.
Sam: This is reflected in our national debt. We're passing our debt on to our children. We
don't have enough guts to put our own house into order. We're spending our children's
Bert: One of the words that comes up in discussions of men's issues is "patriarchy."
Gregory Max Vogt writes in Return to Father of a positive, non-authoritarian, "homologous"
patriarchy. In The Passionate Life you write of the roles of the "matrix" and the "patrix,"
pattern, structure and rule-giving, in an infant's life.
Sam: I think the word "patriarchy" is a dumb word, because it creates a night in which all
cats are dark. "Patriarchy" becomes, in a sense, everything that has happened in Western
culture, in the sense that Western culture reflects those values we associate with "male" or
"hierarchy." It's very easy to turn this into some kind of an excuse for male-bashing -- "Oh,
everything associated with the patriarchy is no good." -- and praising everything that was
matriarchal and matrilineal. Or, as René Eisner says in The Chalice and the Blade, to say
that we had a "partnership" culture before we had patriarchy. Well, that's nonsense. That's
ideology. It doesn't help. It doesn't help to distinguish what we have now. We don't have a
patriarchal culture at all. We have what I call a "corporarchal" culture. We don't have a
bunch of wild and fierce men up there controlling the society. The old patriarchy protected
their own. "This is my tribe, this is my clan. No, we don't have that. We have wimps at the
heads of corporations. As John Kenneth Galbreath described in The New Industrial Society,
corporate leaders say, "I can't do very much. I don't have very much power."
Patriarchy is not a very accurate term. It doesn't get to the root of problems. There's a lot of
problems with what men do to women, and vice versa, but the word "patriarchy" doesn't
help us very much.
Traditionally, we think of the "matrix" as being the unconscious, and the "patrix" being the
cultural values. And, traditionally, of course, that was male and female. Mothers were the
source of the values of sensuality and intimacy. The male, the "patrix," was the source of
the law, the culture, given to the male by initiation. I don't think that's accurate anymore. Did
you ever notice that when that term is used, you have the feeling that you've read it all
before? It creates stereotype modality situations, but it doesn't get us any further. It's a little
bit like religion, "All is One, all is One." But what does that mean? All is many, also. The
term "patriarchy" does not distinguish enough to be helpful term in our analysis of the
I'll give you an example. We are told that in this patriarchy women make 60 percent as
much as men. It's an interesting statistic, but what is also interesting is that when women
supposedly don't have any power, women actually account for 80 percent of all consumer
spending. It's a weird little thing, they actually account for 70 percent of the sale of men's
clothing and 50 percent of automobile sales. There are all kinds of power. And the language
of patriarchy hits only one aspect, namely that some identified positive values are identified
as male, that males head the political, economic and cultural environment. It looks at only
that fact, and overlooks other ways in which women have power within the system.
Bert: What struck me about your use of the word "patrix" was that it described the value of
necessary patterning, structuring, ordering, and rule-giving, as a complement in the young
baby's life to the development of the sensitive, the intuitive and the erotic.
Sam: I don't think I would use those terms today. Even those terms are gender-biased
terms. The mother is going to give us the sensuality, and the father is going to give us the
rules. My father probably held me as much as my mother, and my mother gave me rules. If
you look at any cultural situation, I think that you'll find that that's true. A father's way of
holding the baby may be different, but I want to get rid of gender terms. I want to get rid of
terms like "my masculine," "my feminine." I think they are very inaccurate. I think they
perpetrate a schizophrenia that is not true of our actual experience. I think men should get
out of the role of saying, "I am the law-giving one and she is the sensuous one." Both of
these functions are necessary in any vital human being, male or female.
Bert: Would a male or female express their sensuality or intuition differently?
Sam: Maybe, maybe not.. I don't think it's necessarily true.
Bert: Depending on cultural conditioning.
Sam: Look at the Eskimo culture. Look at the way they play. They may not do this so much
any more, since they have t.v. But on long winter nights they would play. They would play
"faces," grabbing and contorting each other's faces. Incredible sensual, bodily play. I think
that it has much more to do with a distinction between war-making cultures and relatively
peaceful cultures. The more peaceful a culture is, the more everybody in that culture has
permission to express their sensuality. The more war-like a culture is, the less permission
there is to do this.
Bert: That beings up the major thesis of The Passionate Life. I've got to tell you, that the
Seattle Public Library shelves that book with the other sex education books.
Sam: (laughing), Well, that's O.K.!
Bert: They're "idiots" in your classic sense of the word, private people who think that eros
is best expressed only in privacy.
Sam: Well, better there than ... I don't know where. Better there than education.
Bert: Your whole concept there -- you have such an interesting way of asking questions --
what would happen if we embraced the world as lovers? As a sensuous and erotic
Sam: Or even more interesting than that, to me, is the question what if we began to feed
our erotic and compassion quotient rather than our intelligence quotient. We go bug-eyed
over intelligence quotients. What if we really tired to increase our compassion quotients?
We spend a vast amount of resources on our children's education, so we can "educate"
them to "know" the world. What if we out an equal amount of resources into teaching our
children how to open up and enjoy the world, to reverence and love the world? It would be
an easy cultural project; it is not utopian at all.
Bert: Doesn't that tie into school boards' decisions in tomes of tight budgets, to cut out the
arts and music?
Sam: Totally, totally. It is a Western supposition that the more objective "knowledge" we
have about the world, the better we are able to live. That's the first assumption to question.
Bert: Especially in this day and age. I have more information on my own bookshelves than I
could possibly absorb in ten lifetimes.
Bert: The whole topic of loving the world brings up what your topic is going to be when you
speak here on Friday May 7th. Spirituality and sexuality. How do you see that connection.
Sam: Well, complexly. They both get very confused. It's easy to start with the traditions of
our culture as being at the root of the problem. In our culture, the two are completely
divorced, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition. It's a labyrinth supposedly governed by
a celibate priesthood. But they aren't. We don't talk about the seduction of little boys and
girls. So we have a rift, in our culture, between spirituality and sexuality. To make the
reconciliation, we need to ask, "what are they about?" They're both modes of trying to
overcome loneliness. Alfred North Whitehead once said that "religion is what one does with
his own solitariness." A major way that we deal with our solitariness is through sexuality. All
that that means is that sexuality is a bond between man and the world around him. And the
other way is through our spirituality. And to find a reconciliation between the two, in our
culture we have enormous capabilities, one of which is that we try to control what is "out
there" and another is that our technology alienates us from it. So, paradoxically, the more
we know about the world out there, the more we become alienated from it. And we have
this enormous problem of how we deal with our longing for the world. Sexuality, then, is the
longing of the body. Sex is part of our relationship with the world. I don't think in other
cultures they have a separate word for "sex." Sex was a just a part of their relationship with
life, and a gateway to the mysteries of the world. Therefore we have all kinds of boundaries
around it, all kinds of rules about it. Sex used appropriately, is an enlightening experience.
It's powerful stuff, because it leads you right into the heart of it.
Bert: Into the numinous.
Sam: Exactly. Into the numinous. Well, we have taken the numinous away from sex. And
away from religion and our view of the world, too. Our problem is how to get it back in. That
happens when we understand the depths of what we're doing in the world.
Bert: There's an image that comes to mind for me, from the end of your The Power of
Stories tape. You describe finding water for your cabin. You spotted ferns too high on the
bank, and dug under the rock. Add there you were, naked, digging into the earth, getting into
it, getting muddy. I saw something very primal, earthy and sexual in that image.
Sam: Well, certainly something very erotic. This is who I am, no matter what I'm doing. My
way of relating to the earth is very erotic. It is to live in it. I can't be any other way, because
otherwise there's no room for my spirit. So there I was, digging into the rocks and the roots.
And I derived an enormous amount of physical pleasure in it. I'd be wallowing in the mud,
and I'd go down there and dig around. It was so muddy there was no sense in wearing
clothes, except maybe for a jockstrap, to protect the sensitive parts.
Bert: There's a whole other theme that comes out of that, about being in touch with our
bodies. It's said that men are out of touch with their bodies, except from the neck up, and
out of relationship of their bodies except to use as a tool.
Sam: I wouldn't say just men. I would say that in our society what happens is that work gets
out of touch with our bodies. To the degree to which we become identified with economic
work, we become Type-A people. I would like to point out the fact that in the late 1960's all
the sociologists were saying that the greatest challenge we faced was how to use our
leisure time. Marcuse talked about this. He said that machines would set eros free. We
could have used machines in that way. But, instead, we increased the number of products
we have to have, and began to work compulsively to get them.
Bert: And now what's happening, instead, is that it's become an economic necessity for
both the husband and the wife to work. Otherwise they can't make it.
Sam: Sure. How are we going to buy the mountain bikes? How are we to get the lycra suits
to wear with it? You can't ride a mountain bike without a lycra suit. We're the only society in
the world that will spend $150 dollars for a pair of the lightest weight running shoes, and
then spend another $25 to buy weights to wear on our wrists when we run.
Bert: My wife Bernetta is going to be amused to hear you say that work takes you away
from the body. She teaches yoga, and her philosophy is that the focus of yoga is to be
totally in touch with, in tune with, your body.
Sam: Well, good, maybe. That's true, probably. But people who work with their bodies
professionally also get out of touch with them. I talk to a lot of dancers, and they talk of their
body as an instrument. And even yoga becomes this pose, that pose, can you do this, can
you do that. There is what I call the "tyranny of the lotus position." You can't possibly
meditate if you can't get into the lotus position. Well, that's not true. The body doesn't feel
that; not all bodies are made to do that.
Bert: If I were in the lotus position, if I could ever get into it, I probably couldn't meditate.
Sam: You probably couldn't get out of it, probably, either.
Bert: (Laughing) That's probably true.
Sam: For years they did this Fascist thing, that those who got into the lotus position told you
you couldn't meditate, and the fact is that if you ever got into the lotus position, all that pain
that you experience, well, you were supposed to overcome that pain. That was good for
you. It's like flagellation.
Bert: When you were a young theology professor you wrote a book about Gabriel Marcel,
the French Christian existentialist. One passage stuck out at me, because it seemed so
consistent with your own later work. "The quest for being must begin by exploring personal
experience in order to determine whether it contains any hint of a reality that resists the
corrosive acids of criticism, despair and tragedy.".
Sam: That's a great passage. Did I write that, or did Marcel?
Bert: That was you. And then you go on to quote him. And in your later work you go on into
how we get in touch with our own bodies, and how we develop our own stories.
Sam:. Yes, but that was not Marcel. Marcel went more in the direction of abstract emotions,
or what he called concrete approaches, where he talked about fidelity or love, or joy. I think
my unique contribution is that I say, "No, no, no, no no. Tell me your story. Tell me exactly
where you're coming from. God lives in detail. Tell me a detailed biography."
Bert: Your prose and your prose style reflect that. I found your book on Gabriel Marcel
interesting, and I was aware that I was reading a theological or philosophical textbook.
Bert: But Fire in the Belly and The Passionate Life was so much of your own writing, about
your own life.
Sam: Right. Or even, An Apology for Wonder. It's a marvelous book, which I feel is very
crucial to our culture. I did, unlike my formal, academic mode, write my own autobiography,
most especially in my dedication to my father.
Bert: Well, thank you very much for this interview. We will look forward very much to what
you have to tell us when you come up here to talk to us in May.
Sarah van Gelder talks with Sam Keen about the complex arts
of loving. The Heart & Soul section is supported by the Fetzer
The Loving Arts
Sarah: Your new book is about what it means to be a great lover, but it's
clearly not a sex manual. What do you mean by being a great lover?
Sam: Well, first of all, if I start off asking, "Am I a great sexual partner?"
that's a recipe for disaster.
The primary question is "How do I become a loving human being?" My
intimate sexual relationship will be healthy and creative only in the degree
that I stay with that question.
The great heresy of our time is when we start talking about love in terms
of sex. Our concentration on sex has paradoxically ruined our sexual
relationships - has trivialized them.
The Balinese say, "We don't have any art, we do everything as beautifully
as we can." For pre-modern society, what we call sex is an integral part of
life - even an integral part of metaphysics. The goddess or god figures
placed in the fields signify the fertility and creativity of the Earth. Fertility
and creativity is very much a part of the original experience of sexuality.
When we strip sex of all of its meaning and focus instead on heightening
sensation or even on heightening commitment between two lovers, it's
really a very truncated vision.
Sarah: So you'd turn Freud's theory on its head. He says that all desire has
a sexual root, but you're saying that desire for sex is actually rooted in
Sam: Absolutely! All sexuality, even the most twisted sexuality, is rooted in
the desire to create.
Plato's idea of Eros wasn't exclusively sexual. Eros was a force that drove
the water through the rock and the sap through the tree.
Plato would ask: Why is it that an acorn becomes an oak tree? Because it
has a longing. The longing to become an oak tree is contained within the
I think that sexuality is a part of our longing to join with others, to become
who we are, to create. Paradoxically, it's when we see it in that context
that we are going to have the best sex.
Sarah: You've said that our emphasis on sex as the foundation for all
relationships actually cuts us off from other forms of love.
Sam: That's right. We're all going to be out of any sexual relationship for a
good part of our lives - at the very least when we're children and much of
the time when we're old. So, what do we do? In most traditional societies
it's friendship, not romance, that is most highly valued.
Sarah: I've been struck by how often outside North America you see
touching that has nothing to do with sex. For example, in China it's not
unusual to see two male soldiers holding hands. Friends hold hands as just a
normal expression of affection.
Sam: That shows one of the deep kinds of sicknesses of our society - that
we have so sexualized touch: If you touch me, that's sexual; if I didn't want
it, it's harassment.
It's become almost taboo for us to touch people when we don't have sexual
intentions. I mean teachers can't touch kids anymore!
And we're creatures of touch! We live more and more in a world of
electronics, in a world of images of images of images - the world of
"information." Information doesn't smell, it's not tactile, it's a bunch of
wavering images on a screen. But we're embodied creatures. We were
created within a body and nurtured by a body. Most of our experiences of
ecstasy have to do with touch. So, what kind of civilization are we creating
in which we are literally "out of touch?"
Sarah: It's interesting that we're losing track of touch at the same time as
the news is dominated by stories of sex: sexual harassment in the military,
Clinton's alleged affairs, the rape in Brooklyn. Why do you think there's
such a preoccupation now?
Sam: I suspect that to the degree that our relational lives - our love life in
the largest sense - are impoverished, we become interested in sex.
And the more frustrated we become in our efforts to create, the more we
become hypnotized by violence. Violence is the final resort of impotent
people, and a great deal of what we're talking about in terms of sex is
really about violence.
Our consumer society dehumanizes - we've become consumers of images,
and sex is a big part of that. It's treating other people as objects, and
treating this ecstatic relationship as a joining between a couple of
anonymous bodies; this dehumanization is also a form of violence.
Sarah: You've coined the phrase, the colonization of desire ...
Sam: That's right. We are creatures of longing; every religious tradition has
told us that. But the great change in the modern world came as mass
advertising began to creep inside our desire system and say, "Look, I know
what you want. This is what you want. This will really satisfy you."
We are bombarded by images that literally colonize our desire system. The
advertising industry tells us that our deepest longings are going to be
satisfied by a Rolex, or by a new Buick, or now it's the Range Rover.
And when we get those things and we're still not satisfied, we're hooked
into trying again, like addicts. We're hooked on getting the next fix instead
of going back to those deep, deep questions: "What is it that has real
meaning for me? What is it that I really desire?"
Sarah: I believe you've also said "You can never get enough of what you
don't really need."
Sam: Well, no. I've said, you can't get enough of what you didn't want in
the first place. And that's the basic wisdom all addicts finally come to - the
discovery that alcohol or gambling was a substitute for something else.
Likewise, this excess - this drive for that fifth million - isn't about money.
The great American parable about that is Citizen Kane. What was all his
striving about? What did he really want? Rosebud!
When we're addicted, we're obsessed with getting more - whether it's sex
or money or luxuries. In all of our lives there's a 'Rosebud,' a longing that's
not satisfied by whatever we've become addicted to.
Sarah: Was there a moment of epiphany for you when you realized you
didn't know what you really desired?
Sam: Yeah, it was a gradual epiphany that came in the period before the
breakup of my first marriage. I thought that I was a loving guy who knew
what I wanted. I'd always thought the problems in my marriage were just
my wife's dissatisfactions. Unfortunately, it turned out I was wrong.
I got my wife to go to a therapist to get her "fixed up" and then went along
to the therapist myself to help him fix her up. He gingerly suggested to her
that maybe half of the problems were mine - that I was angry at her, angry
at my mother, and distrustful of women. Boy, that got me really pissed off
with that jerk!
Then one day it came down on me - oh my God, he's right!
At the time I was teaching courses on love at a seminary; I was supposed
to know about this stuff! And to find out that I didn't - to find out that a lot
of what I called love was fear, and a lot of what I called caring was just
trying to control somebody, and what I called play was sarcasm and
Somebody once said, "When the clock strikes 13, everything that went
before becomes questionable." I never, never thought there would be a
divorce, but when it happened, the clock struck 13.
After that, I began to ask myself, "What is it that I do want? And what is it
that I call love?"
Sarah: One of the themes that you return to repeatedly is the tension
between solitude and inner work, and deeply knowing and being known by
another person. Was that a significant issue in your marriage?
Sam: Well I didn't have that separation in my first marriage; I didn't know
the difference between me and her.
Now, I'm sitting in a beautiful little studio 300 feet from the house. My wife
has a little apartment downtown; I don't even know where it is. I come
here to my studio to write, and sometimes I sleep here. It's a place where I
cultivate my relationship with myself in solitude. If I don't do that, I get
very confused in the intimacy about who I am and what the difference is
between what she wants and what I want. Then I cease to deepen the
wells out of which I have water to bring to others.
Sarah: Many people spend a lot of time alone, but their experience is more
one of isolation.
Sam: That's true, but solitude has nothing to do with isolation. One of the
major things that we find in solitude is how much we need other people. In
solitude we discover that the idea that we are individuals isolated from
other people is a lie. Buddhism and other practices of meditation are about
busting through the illusion that I am separate and apart and isolated.
And many of the scientific discoveries related to quantum physics and the
study of ecology have confirmed this intrinsic connectedness.
Sarah: Let me follow up on that. In some spiritual traditions, the ties of love
and sex are seen as distractions from a search for transcendence, and in
others they are seen as a means to greater union with God. How do you
Sam: In the Buddhist tradition when you come to somebody, you bow and
say "Namaste," which means I recognize that which is sacred in you. That
fundamental religious insight doesn't mean that I recognize that the mind in
you is sacred, or any one part of you is sacred; it means I recognize all of
you as sacred. It means that I'm not going to violate you economically, and
I'm not going to rip you off sexually. Nor am I going to be ripped off
It means that whatever relationship we come into is going to be one of
respect and of acknowledgment of the sacredness of each other.
And it's within that sacred context, and a context of celebrating the body
and celebrating sexuality that we can try to figure out whether sex is
appropriate or not appropriate - not whether we're legally married, and
have taken a bath, and it's Friday night and the lights are off.
Sarah: Hinduism and Buddhism also have a tradition of celibacy.
Sam: They do, that's right. What's interesting about these traditions is that
the celibacy is not anti-sexual. People don't flaunt their sexuality - they
aren't out with miniskirts advertising - but they're not prudish either.
Buddhism and Hinduism say celibacy is fine, but there is also a path to God
which uses sexual intercourse and the conscious disciplining of desire.
There's choice; you can chose the left-hand path or the right-hand path.
That was not part of the Christianity I grew up with. Nobody ever said,
"Get a sexual partner, and practice breathing and allowing the ecstasy to go
into your mind and into your sense of unity with God."
Both Catholicism and the tradition I grew up with, the Protestant /
Fundamentalist church, have injured people a great deal. Both impose guilt,
hypocrisy and shame.
If you work with people in any kind of therapeutic situation, you see how
many enter into marriages and relationships with an enormous sense of
guilt and a sense of the dirtiness and unacceptability of their own bodies.
Sarah: What is the relationship between the skills that make you a good
lover and those that make you a compassionate, loving citizen of the world?
Sam: I think that the journey of love is the journey away from feeling that
we are at the center and the raison d'etre for all things. I think the journey
of love is a journey into union with other forms of life - the realization that
we are in a commonwealth of beings.
I'm reading a book that's on the bestsellers' list, The Man Who Talked to
Horses, about a guy who spent time with herds of wild mustangs and
learned to talk like a horse by using his body the way they do.
It's a marvelous book because it shows the difference between the old idea
of breaking horses and making them fear you, versus this very concrete
illustration of what it means to become a cosmic lover.
We can't love nature in the abstract. But we can go out and observe and
appreciate. I am sitting in my office right now looking out over the creek,
and a pileated woodpecker just landed on a tree right in front of me. It's
enormous, the largest kind of woodpecker in the United States.
Well, I can say that I love those woodpeckers. There used to be a nest
right over there, and I would sit and watch them - I would pay attention to
And I give them respect - even a kind of commitment that I won't hurt
them. There's a big dead tree out here, and somebody once told me I
should cut it down, but I said, "No. The woodpeckers need that tree."
The elements of attention, appreciation, and respect are exactly the same
elements or skills that I practice in relationship to my daughter or my son.
Sarah: Why would someone choose to cultivate empathy or compassion
when it opens you to a greater number of painful experiences?
Sam: The deepest forms of love always involve suffering. I remember
when my first baby got her first shot. The doctor came with a needle and
put that shot in Lael's bottom, and man, I winced! I felt that needle go right
in my bottom, and it hurt!
Then there's the compassion I might have for the people killed in the little
village in Algeria. I see a picture of a slaughtered child, and my heart goes
out to those people. I'm not intimate with them - I will never be intimate
with them - but it's not accidental that the great religions of the world have
said that compassion, not intimacy, is necessary to becoming fully human.
We have only one choice; whether to feel more or less. We can try not to
come in contact with anyone else's suffering, or we can open up and get
more suffering - and more joy!
Ultimately, the great crisis in our society is that we increasingly try to
privatize love. We think we can have our little love nest down where the
roses bloom. Outside, it's okay to be against other people, it's okay to
compete, it's okay not to know or care about your neighbors. The
community as a whole can go to hell!
The notion that we can have satisfying love only in intimacy, without loving
strangers, is psychological nonsense. We are not splittable that way. It's
the great illusion.
Sam Keen is author of To Love and Be Loved, (Bantam), Hymns to an Unknown
God , and Fire in the Belly. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and holds
a PhD in philosophy of religion from Princeton University.
A Men's Movement Pioneer Calls
for the End to "The Gender Game"
An Interview with Sam Keen
by Craig Hamilton
"The idea of total liberation is a bad and very destructive idea," the
gruff voice on the other end of the line announced, adding, "One of
the things I frankly don't like about your magazine is the holding up of
these people who are supposedly ‘in the absolute' and totally
liberated." While our commitment to investigative journalism often
finds us in unexpected territory, I had to admit that this was a new
one. Not five minutes into what was scheduled to be a
one-and-a-half-hour interview, and already our magazine and the
very aspiration on which it is built were under fire. Fortunately, I
thought to myself, I hadn't called Sam Keen to ask him about his
views on enlightenment. And having discovered firsthand that he
was not a man to mince his words, I was all the more eager to ask
this modern-day master of myth—one of the most influential figures
in today's burgeoning men's spirituality movement—our questions on
the role and influence of gender in spiritual life.
Our introduction to Keen's work had come only a few months
before when, while beginning our research into gender and
spirituality, we picked up his book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man.
A rich, almost lyrical blending of autobiographical anecdote and
psychological theory, the book—which in the early nineties had
served as a rallying point for thousands of men bent on breaking free
of the culture's male mythos—soon had us under its spell. For
several weeks, our basement sauna was transformed into a private
sweat lodge of sorts, as the male members of our editorial team
gathered there by evening with our spiritual teacher to read aloud
Keen's riveting analysis of the social and cultural influences that
have molded the psyche of late twentieth-century man. Having each
managed to miss out on all but the broadest strokes of the men's
movement, we found our own experience often powerfully
illuminated by Keen's detailed tour through the rites of war, work and
sex—the three arenas he feels have come to define our conceptions
of what it means to be a man in today's world.
Using his own pilgrimage as a template, in the book Keen also
goes to some length to outline what he sees as the way ahead for
modern men. Not content with the popular men's movement mantras,
"embracing our feminine side" or "unleashing the wild man within," he
points somewhere between these two extremes to a redirecting of
"the fierce warrior energies . . . that men have honed for centuries . .
. toward the creation of a more hopeful and careful future." In his
"new vision of manhood," he leaves little room for the endless
self-centered probing that many associate with "men's work," calling
instead for a new breed of heroic, passionate and "virile" men to rise
up and take responsibility for confronting the ecological and social
crises of our times.
By his own description, Keen is a "philosopher of the sacred."
Hailing from the likes of Harvard and Princeton, with a string of
advanced degrees in philosophy and theology, he has authored over
a dozen books and has for years been a prominent figure in the
American human potential movement. It was through his experiences
leading workshops at Esalen Institute, as a contributing editor for
Psychology Today, and as cofounder of a men's group called SPERM
(Society for the Protection and Encouragement of Righteous
Manhood) that he began to formulate many of the ideas that would fill
the pages of his books.
In the larger body of his work, Keen informed me, Fire in the
Belly is perhaps best characterized as his answer to the
psychological dilemmas of modern man and, as such, is not in itself
focused primarily on the spiritual dimension of life. It was only in his
1994 book Hymns to an Unknown God that Keen attempted to chart
the waters of the spiritual quest—a journey he sees as common to
both sexes—which only can begin after the psychological "wounds
of gender" have been healed. Describing the book, he writes: "[It] is a
map of the path we travel together, when the questions of
masculinity and femininity, male and female roles, have been left far
behind." Keen's approach to spirituality, along with Jungian analysis
and many body-centered "transpersonal" therapies, does not count
itself among those spiritual paths aiming for final enlightenment, but
falls instead under the broad umbrella of what has come to be called
"sacred psychology." Attempting to bring the individualistic ideals of
Western humanism into a spiritual context, Keen and other authorities
in this increasingly popular school of thought point to a life of
meaning found not in surrendering to a God greater than oneself, nor
in an effort to slay the ego through the renunciation of self-centered
impulses, but through a personal confrontation with one's own
existential questions and a reckoning with the shadow-world of
one's unconscious. Keen writes: "My quest . . . is driven primarily by
a personal-existential need to discover how I fit within the scheme
of things, not by a . . . need to understand how human beings fit
within the cosmos. . . . The dignity and meaning of my life involve the
discovery and creation of my way, my truth, my destiny." Although
some traditional enlightenment teachings do find expression in Keen's
work, the ultimate goal of spiritual life as he defines it is not the
dissolution of the separate sense of self, but the empowering of it.
During the course of our conversation last spring, Keen related
some of the details of his own personal struggle first to prove his
manhood and later to shed the rigid notions of masculinity in which
he found himself bound. Having spent the better part of his life going
against his own deeply sensitive nature, he recounted, it was only
when a therapist pointed out to him that his "manliness is [his]
sensitivity" that he was able to begin to make his own "journey
Having heard Keen's description of this pivotal moment in his
search, it struck me as perhaps slightly ironic that his phone manner
seemed to fall somewhere on the spectrum between John Wayne
and General Patton. In the course of our conversation, Keen made it
clear that he does not suffer fools—or opposing viewpoints—gladly,
as he forthrightly shared his informed and often scathing critique of
everything from radical feminism to Jungian psychology to the very
men's movement which gave him his fame.
And while I can't deny that I was still glad I wasn't interviewing
him about enlightenment, there was nonetheless something about the
straightforwardness, and even boldness, with which he spoke that I
couldn't help but appreciate. For one meets few people who have
lived their questions as Keen has. And his thinking on many of the
central themes surrounding our inquiry into gender and spirituality
showed not only an unusual clarity and precision but a passionate
conviction and a refreshing depth and breadth of hard-earned
WIE: In Fire in the Belly, you call upon men to undertake a spiritual
journey that culminates in "the celebration of a new vision of
manhood." What defines this journey, as you see it?
SAM KEEN: Well, a large part of my work is focused on the way in
which the myths of a culture shape and inform the way we live, the
way we think about ourselves and the way we feel. What I'm doing
in Fire in the Belly is dealing with the myth of gender and specifically
with the myth of male gender. And you have to understand that
when I talk about a spiritual journey in that context, I'm not talking
about a total spiritual journey; I'm talking about only one aspect of it.
My ultimate message for the men's movement or, as far as that's
concerned, the women's movement, with regard to spirituality and
gender is: Get over it! Because the spiritual journey starts on the
other side of gender.
Now let me say what I mean by that because I think my
perspective is different from that of most people. I've got to start with
the idea of myth, that a myth is like the software that is inserted into
us by the society, by our family. Nature gives us certain hardware.
There's male hardware and there's female hardware. But the
moment we're born, people start shoving these software disks in,
saying, "Here's what a real man is. Here's what it means to be a
man. Here's what it means to be an American man," and things like
that. That's what gender is. And those gender divisions, for roughly
the last four thousand years, have been largely circulating around
warfare. The division between men and women has been the
division between warriors and nurturers. The male has been
artificially conditioned to be tough, to be aggressive, to be hostile, to
be willing to either kill or die for the tribe. The most poignant symbol of
this, of course, is circumcision, which is a way of saying that to be
male is to be wounded and to be willing to be wounded, whereas the
female has been conditioned to be the servant of the warriors, the
bearer of the children, the nurturer of the society, and in that sense
to be inferior to the male. So when we're talking about gender, we're
largely talking about injuries that have been done to male persons
and female persons in the effort to perpetuate a way of life based
upon warfare, aggression, domination and control. And all of that,
from the point of view of the life of the spirit, is a mistake. It's this we
have to rise above in order to begin to have any notion of what the
WIE: Would you say, then, that the spiritual path is the same for men
as for women? Or is it different?
SK: I would say it's the same, although it demands that we get over
different illusions. The male has got to get over the illusions of
manhood, and the woman has to get rid of the illusions of
womanhood, to go beyond them, to go beyond the cultural
stereotypes that have shaped them and to realize that, at the level of
the life of the spirit, there isn't a difference—that it's equally difficult
for us to transcend those things, to grind up the whole shadow, to
delve into our unconscious and to transcend our conditioning. I think
of the life of the spirit, in a sense, as that which begins to emerge on
the far side of the mythologies that have shaped and informed us.
The first place I can remember that this question was raised
was many, many years ago when Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian,
wrote an essay about pride, about how we have to get over pride
because pride is a chief sin. And a woman who must have been one
of the first feminist theologians wrote and said, "Wait a minute, that
may be true for men. But it's not true for women. Women, by and
large, have a problem of low self-esteem, of not having enough pride
because that's what the culture has done to them; it says that you're
second class." So in that sense, there is a different emotional
agenda that attaches to a woman freeing herself and a man freeing
himself, just in large terms.
Let me tell you another way in which this topic is talked about
that I think will distinguish how I think about it differently from other
people. Of course, Western spirituality has until recently been almost
exclusively male in its metaphors. The metaphor of "God the Father"
is perhaps the strongest example. And Mary Daly came along some
twenty-five years ago and said, "This is a big mistake. Talking about
God the Father is just a way to smuggle your politics and your sense
of male gender superiority into theology." It was like dropping a
bombshell into theology because suddenly you realized that these
male-biased metaphors really said that "masculine" traits, such as
control and reason, were better than "feminine" traits. Like all males, I
resisted her stuff in the beginning. Then I began to realize she was
absolutely right about it. But the problem is that the feminists then
said, "Oh, God the Father. That's right. That's a baaad way to talk.
Now, let's talk about God the Mother. Let's talk about the Goddess."
Now, I think that Mary Daly should be as critical of that as she has
been of the notion of God the Father. We do not begin to get on a
spiritual journey until we go beyond the gendered metaphors for
God. For instance, tell me what in the world it could possibly mean to
say Mother Nature? What's motherly about it as opposed to fatherly
or brotherly? It's a metaphor, and it's a metaphor whose time has
passed as far as I'm concerned. I say that we need to get beyond
that and to get back to the much more basic kinds of metaphors of
knowing, of compassion, of loving.
The second book I wrote was called Apology for Wonder.
Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder. The same thing is
true about the life of the spirit. The life of the spirit begins in wonder,
the wonder that there is anything, the sense of gratitude to be in a
world that is filled with all of these marvels. And if the life of the spirit
begins in wonder and awe, then what could it possibly mean to say
that's either male or female? It's irrelevant. Maleness and femaleness
are irrelevant to the basic fact that there is this marvelous universe.
WIE: You were speaking about how we all have strong ideas of what
it means to be a good or real man or a good or real woman, ideas
that have been implanted into us by culture. And while people
generally tend to put a lot of energy into trying to live up to that
gender ideal, spiritual liberation teachings stress that we have to be
willing to give up all of our preconceived ideas and live in a state of
perpetual unknowing, a condition of genuine openness to the
discovery of what is. One of the things we're exploring in this issue
is what this kind of unknowing would mean in relation to our gender
identity. Would it be possible, for example, for an individual to come
to a point in their spiritual development where they were completely
freed from any fixation on gender differences while at the same time
felt no need to avoid or deny whatever differences might actually
SK: Well, yes and no. In the first place, the idea of total liberation is a
bad and extremely destructive idea.
WIE: It is?
SK: Yes, because it's something to aim at that you're never going to
hit. To be free from the crippling effects of gender is a good ideal and
we should work in that direction, but you're also always living within
a society where those distinctions are operative and continue to be
wounding to you and to others. And part of what it means to live the
life of the spirit is to work to overcome that. But no matter how far
you go, you're always going to have an unconscious, you're always
going to have a shadow, you're always going to have something that
has the tendency to draw you back into those distinctions because
you were formed that way in the beginning. In a sense, it's sort of a
countercultural act to get free of them.
So in terms of the notion of total liberation, I don't have the
foggiest idea what that would mean. One of the things I frankly don't
like about your magazine is the holding up of these people who are
supposedly "in the absolute" and totally liberated. I don't know
whether you remember, but for many years I was the person at
Psychology Today who interviewed all these gurus. And so I've had
a good bit of experience with a
fair number of them—Chögyam Trungpa, Oscar Ichazo, Muktananda
and others. And if these are all examples of people who are totally
liberated, I say give me slavery because they were people with
enormous illusions and who were cultivating enormous illusions in
their followers. By and large almost all of them were totally unclear
about three important things: sex, money and power. And they could
play like they were liberated as long as they had a whole cult of
disciples who did everything for them except wipe their asses—and
probably that, too. And most of them were on enormous power trips.
So I think the idea of total liberation is sort of like the idea of
perfection. It's an idea that is more crippling than helpful.
WIE: But in your chapter "Taking the Measure of Man" in Fire in the
Belly, you write about the "Hall of Exemplars," about the
extraordinary men and women who, in their rare demonstration of
"elemental virtue[s]," stand as "harbingers of hope" for all of us who
aspire to live a greater life. You state that what's significant about
these men and women is that "their lives are our strongest evidence
that human beings are spiritual creatures, that we are able to
transcend the conditioning of both biology and culture." So what I'm
asking you is: What does it mean to transcend biological and
cultural conditioning, specifically where gender is concerned?
SK: Well, let me take one of my good examples: Georgia O'Keeffe.
Now, Georgia O'Keeffe, right from the beginning, did not follow the
path that one was supposed to follow to be a nice girl. She wasn't
sugar and spice and everything nice. She wasn't getting the coffee
for anybody. She wasn't asking anybody how she should draw.
Right from the beginning of her life, she had a vision and she
pursued it. And she pursued it in such a way that she broke many of
the taboos of her time. When she wanted to marry Stieglitz, she got
married; when she needed to be in New Mexico, she went to New
Mexico. Today that would not be all that shocking, but back then it
was pretty radical stuff.
WIE: So in this sense of the word "transcendence," you're not
speaking about an absolute transcendence as it's been conceived
by the great mystical traditions, but more specifically about a
willingness to break with the status quo?
SK: Well, yes, but it's about self-understanding, too. And, you know,
there are millions of quiet exemplars to look to as well. As a matter of
fact, I have much more trouble looking at the official examples than I
do at unofficial ones. We all salute these official sort of semi-saints
but, I mean, who knows what the Dalai Lama does on the side?
WIE: Coming back to the question of gender differences, a number
of contemporary thinkers and practitioners have asserted that
women are, by nature, predisposed to pursue a path of
immanence—which involves deeply connecting to their bodies and
to the cycles of nature and finding the sacred in relationship—while
men tend to seek transcendence of all that is worldly, to look
beyond themselves for the sacred mystery that lies at the source of
all existence. Seemingly in support of this idea are certain religious
traditions that adhere to a kind of tantric model in which there are
strictly defined spheres that are said to be divinely ordained for men
and women. In Orthodox Judaism, for example, the men devote
themselves to study and prayer and the women are expected to find
their spiritual fulfillment in bearing children and maintaining the
sanctity of the home. According to this paradigm, it is only by each
sex giving themselves wholeheartedly to the fulfillment of these
preordained roles and then coming together in their differences that
divine union can be achieved and God's will can become manifest
on Earth. Do you feel that this notion of distinct paths for men and
women bears out in practice?
SK: No. I think that's sort of like saying it's intrinsic and God-given that
women should wear skirts and men should wear pants. I think it's
just about as culturally conditioned as that. I mean, come on, give me
a break! Women are more immanent than men?! Tell that to van Gogh!
Tell it to Audubon, tell it to John Muir, tell it to Agassiz, tell it to any of
the poets. I don't know where people get off making this kind of
generalization! I mean, what could that possibly mean? I'm sitting
here, as a matter of fact, this very moment, looking out my window at
the stream and the beautiful greens with the sun on them—so I
guess that kind of makes me like a woman!
Almost every year I take groups into Bhutan. It's marvelous
because there you see that men and women, especially in rural
areas, practically do almost exactly the same things—the same kind
of work. Their bodies even look kind of the same. And it's not a big
deal. You get the sense that sexuality and everything goes much
more easily. I don't ever hear anybody saying anything that would be
vaguely like, "a real man does this or a real woman does that." There
are some role divisions in the society, of course. Male monastics are
uppermost in the establishment. And there are some put-downs of
women in the tradition, including the assertion that it's harder for
women to get enlightened and things of that kind. But I just think that
generalizations like that are repressive. And let me tell you why I
think they're repressive, why I'm so passionate about this idea.
As a young man, I was unusually sensitive. I loved birds, I loved
nature and I was sensuous. And gradually it occurred to me that this
was something I had to be ashamed of, that it was kind of sissy. So I
put that stuff away for a long time. Through my teenage years I took
Charles Atlas courses and learned to wrestle to toughen myself up
so I could be a man. And it wasn't until I began trying to work through
some of these ideas that I began to realize, in retrospect, what
bullshit that was, what destructive cultural stereotyping it really was.
When this first really began to open up for me was actually during a
bioenergetics session with Stanley Keleman. I was going with a
woman at the time who was giving me all kinds of trouble. I just
wasn't manly enough for her, in my view. And Stanley looked at me
one day and said, "You don't get it, do you? You just don't get it.
Your manliness is your sensitivity." And I realized I had been
misidentifying where my "Sam Keen" strength was all along, that all
these "feminine" parts that I had thought were not worthy of me
were really where the juice of my life was, and that I had to learn to
be more accepting, more surrendering and softer and more
So I think that those notions are really destructive to individual
people. In my seminars, I frequently have women come up and talk
about how deeply shamed they are because they're aggressive,
competent women and they maybe even look kind of manly. They
say, "I have all this competence and everything else but, you know, I
just feel like maybe I'm not feminine enough." And I look at them and I
say, "You look like a pretty attractive woman to me. What do you
mean?" They say, "Well, you know, I'm not x, y and z, and all these
other things." You see, it's injurious to put these kinds of cookie
cutters over ourselves.
WIE: It seems to be common practice today to label qualities such
as compassion, receptivity, sensitivity and intuition as "feminine"
and qualities such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, ambition
and reason as "masculine." Near the end of Fire in the Belly, in
writing about what you call "the gender game," you speak at length
about these binding polarities that have come to define our
conceptions of gender. You state: "Manliness and womanliness are
both defined by a process of decision, and denial. Each gender is
assigned half of the possible range of human virtues and vices. . . .
We do not know what human beings would be like if encouraged to
develop their innate promise without the systematic crippling effect
of the gender game."
SK: Yeah, well, in the first place, I go on to say there that I think that
no self-respecting person who's thought about these things should
ever use the word "masculine" or "feminine" and attach any kind of
general predicates and virtues to it. That's just nonsense. It's time to
get rid of that stuff. It may be helpful on the spiritual journey to ask
myself the question: How have I been crippled by my effort to
become a man or a real man, or a woman or a real woman? That's
not a bad question to begin with. But there is a far, far more
important question which is far more subtle and that is: Who am I?
Who is Sam Keen and what does he experience and what does he
need to do and where are his injuries? So much of my approach is
the effort to go beyond mythology to autobiography, to take my own
story and the uniqueness of my own situation, my own gifts and my
own wounds, with a kind of ultimate seriousness. In other words, to
put it metaphorically, God does not issue something to me that says,
"To whom it may concern," nor does he say, "To all men" or "To all
women" or "Directive to twentieth-century man." No, the still, small
voice addresses me with my name: Sam Keen, do this. Sam Keen,
experience that. It's individually tailored, you see. And the fact is that
my way of being a man is probably different from your way of being
a man. And it's my task to find out what that is. I'm always going to
be a man. Biologically, I'm going to be a man. I have the male
equipment. But what that means is going to be so governed by my
own experience as to be something that would be almost totally,
perhaps, strange to you.
WIE: Along these lines, at another point you state, "Far better to
remain with the real mystery of man and woman than the false
mystification of the masculine and the feminine." What do you mean
by "the real mystery of man and woman?"
SK: I don't know. I know what the false mystery is. The difference
between a false mystery and a real mystery is that you can tell what
a false mystery is, but I'm not sure that you can ever say what the
true mystery is. It's like when I'm in the presence of a woman who
has gone beyond the gender crippling stuff in herself, and I am at
least endeavoring to go beyond it in myself, and we face each other,
no longer as masculine and feminine, but as unique individuals, then
there is the real mystery of that other person. I think I said in the book
it's sort of like what Satchmo said when somebody asked him what
jazz is; he said, "Man, if you don't know, I could never tell you."
WIE: Jungian psychology holds that within each of us, male or
female, there are both masculine and feminine energies, which
need to be brought into balance if we are to become whole. For
instance, Marion Woodman in her book Leaving My Father's House
states, "We all function with these two different energies. As health
and growth depend on both dark and light, so maturity depends on
an inner balance between yin and yang, Shakti and Shiva, being and
doing." Do you agree with this notion that a fundamental polarity of
masculine and feminine energy exists in the psyche?
SK: No, I think it's boring—it's a boring idea. I could put it this way.
There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world up into
two columns and those who don't. I am a person who does not
believe in setting the world up in terms of two columns and then
saying, "But you see, there's a little of the yin in the yang and a little
of the yang in the yin, and we have to get the two columns together."
Well, why start with two columns? Why start with making your basic
concepts about the human psyche goose-step along? I think that's
intellectual tyranny. It's not helpful! It is helpful for me to say, "Now,
Sam, what are you experiencing?" It's helpful for me to sit quietly in
meditation and try to get in a witness space and to identify my
feelings and images. It's totally unhelpful for me to say, "Now I've
gotta get my yin balanced with my yang! Am I too yang or too yin?"
And again, to label these virtues and/or vices as masculine and
feminine is part of the problem. Don't start with an artificial
separation. Think in different categories. If all I can think of is, "I've
got to do this or that," if all I think of is masculine or feminine, it's a
shotgun to my head. That's why I don't like Jungianism—just like I
detest the idea of archetypes.
WIE: Why is that? There are more than two of those.
SK: All right. Let's take the most recent thing. Tell me what the
archetypes of man are?
WIE: The king, the warrior, the lover and the magician.
SK: Now, the idea is that these archetypes are different ways of
structuring our experience that we all somehow have to go through.
To show you how ridiculous that is, let's go back to the earliest
notion in the West of what constituted the dignity of a human being,
which was what? The citizen. In the Greek world, the word for
"idiot," as a matter of fact, meant somebody who was not a citizen.
Now tell me, why isn't the citizen in the archetypes? Because the
Jungians are apolitical, because they're interested in inner
psychodrama. They're not interested in the transformation of the
world. You see, if those are the four archetypes, then we don't have
to worry about what's happening in Kosovo or anywhere else.
That's just stuff that's going on over there. We don't have to worry
about the educational system deteriorating because that's something
citizens worry about. Give me a break! King as an archetype?! That's
why we came to this country—to get rid of those archetypes! That's
what America was all about, "Screw kingship! Screw dominion!" And
the warrior? That's the hair of the dog that bit us. That's what's been
driving us all along. If the Jungians would say, "There are endless
numbers of metaphors that help us to understand ourselves, and
here are four," I'd say, "That's a good start. Now give me five or six.
How about giving me, oh, garbageman." Now, that's a good
archetype, right, because isn't half of the problem cleaning up the
trash in our psyche? Well, sure it is! Separating the wheat from the
chaff, you know. Or how about fool or hobo or wanderer or friend?
How about friend! Now, that's an interesting archetype. Aristotle's
Nicomachean Ethics has a great deal to do with friendship, philia.
I'm not much of a fan of Jungian thought because it ignores two
things: politics and the body. They're largely a disembodied
WIE: It seems as though much of the men's movement has centered
around Jungian thought.
SK: That's right. It has. And I don't think it's helped them.
WIE: In this issue, in addition to exploring the relationship between
gender and spirituality, we're also looking into the relationship
between sexual orientation and the path to liberation. In our time,
there are many gays and lesbians who view their experience of
sexual orientation as the very basis of their spiritual path, a path
employing unique forms of practice and worship. Some advocates of
a distinctly gay spirituality have even suggested that because the
male and female polarities are theoretically more fully integrated
and balanced in homosexuals, theirs is an inherently superior form
of spiritual practice. Andrew Harvey, one prominent spokesperson
of this view, states that "in earlier times . . . homosexuals . . . were
seen as sacred—people who, by virtue of a mysterious fusion of
feminine and masculine traits, participated with particular intensity
in the life of the Source." What do you think of the notion that sexual
orientation constitutes the basis for a distinct and separate spiritual
SK: I don't like it at all. I think that sexual orientation is an individual
thing that shouldn't be politicized. And I don't think, in that sense, it
should be spiritualized, either. In the life of the spirit, the question isn't
whether somebody is gay or straight. From a spiritual perspective, I
think that's meaningless. In the life of the spirit, the question is
whether you're loving or unloving, and to what degree you can enter
a relationship with the fullness of who you are. And this theoretical
construct that the polarities are more balanced in gays and lesbians?
Well, who says that and by what possible jump can we get there?
Maybe they just don't have the polarities. To make gay or lesbian a
category is itself a sin. It's a mistake and a sin. I have friends who
are largely homoerotic who would never call themselves gay. And
people who are homoerotic are as different from each other as
people who are heterosexual are. I'm all for anybody being able to do
what it is that they want with any consenting adult of either gender,
but let's not raise it to the level of something superior. Let's not make
homosexuality or heterosexuality spiritually superior. It's not the
WIE: In our research for this issue, we also came across the idea
among Jungian psychologists, some feminists and a number of
contemporary spiritual thinkers that our ultimate human potential is
the realization of a kind of androgyny in which all human qualities
find equal expression in everyone, regardless of gender. Describing
the fruition of the spiritual path as the birth of what he calls the
"sacred androgyne," Harvey, again, writes: "The main mystical
traditions agree that this birth of a new being can only take place
through a long, arduous, and increasingly conscious intermarriage
of the masculine and the feminine within each one of us, male or
female," and that "only such an intermarriage can give birth to the
sacred, androgynous, free child of the Source that is potential in
each of us." Do you agree with Harvey's view? Is the fullest
expression of our spiritual potential the realization of androgyny?
SK: HO HUM. I mean, why try to press every old idea into service?
Why not try to think about things differently? The idea of androgyny
is just the romantic myth taken into the interior. "Oh, boy. Finally, now,
the man in me and the woman in me are going to get together and
have this marvelous romance and I'm going to be whole." It's like
thinking with wooden blocks. I mean, that idea comes up all through
the alchemical tradition, and it was okay to talk about it then. But isn't
it time to think creatively, to get some new categories, new ways of
thinking, instead of just trying to knit new wool on these old needles?
WIE: You brought up Mary Daly earlier. She and other radical
feminists hold that most if not all of the ills in our individual psyches
and in society at large are the result of the overwhelming influence
of men—male values, attitudes and dispositions—on everything
from the structure of government and commerce to the structure of
language. Citing the widespread, catastrophic effects of patriarchy
on not only the status of women but on the quality of life on this
planet, they call for a return to a gynocentric spiritual culture with
values and institutions akin to those of the peaceful, agrarian world
that existed thousands of years ago. Is Mary Daly right? Would
placing all power in the hands of women be enough to bring about a
peaceful, harmonious culture rooted in deeply spiritual values?
SK: Yeah, yeah. Of course. I mean, you know what they did to build
the pyramids—they went out and they got union labor and they
asked for volunteers because it was all a "cooperative culture." And
in those matriarchal cultures, they also asked people if they wanted
to be human sacrifices because they were nice and kindly in those
days. You know . . . it's the chalice and the blade.
What all of that really is is a disguised rewriting of history in
order to do male bashing. Men and women have been in this thing
together all along. If you want to bash patriarchy, you can bring it
right up to the modern era and speak about how these brutish men,
these terrible men, went over to Vietnam and killed all those people. I
mean, they were nineteen-year-old kids who had no more choice
about what they did than Mary Daly did. Anytime that you put the
blame on one of the genders, you have rendered the other inferior. If
it's true that men just dominated women all that time and women had
no power, then they probably needed to be dominated.
WIE: Do you think putting the blame on men is a complete
SK: Yes. But I also want to say that I do believe that Mary Daly is one
of our great prophetesses. I have learned enormous amounts from
her. I want to affirm so much of her analysis, but I don't want to
affirm her anger. It takes a good deal of courage for a man to really
read Mary Daly and to open himself up to her arguments. Many of
them are brilliant and are necessary medicine to help most men to
understand the injuries that women have experienced in this culture.
But there are certain feminists whose anger gets in the way of their
WIE: I think they would argue that they've got a lot to be angry about.
SK: And they do. They do.
WIE: In your view, what does it mean to go beyond gender?
SK: Again, it means get over it! This question of gender is something,
by and large, to be gotten over, to get on the other side of. I don't ask
myself the question: Am I a man? Am I manly enough? I ask myself
the question: What am I about? In other words, I think we need to
stop making gender a primary way of asking the question: Who am
WIE: What do you think becomes possible within the individual and
between human beings when we do "get over it," as you put it?
SK: Well, I would ask—and this question is at the very center of
Buddhism and Christianity—What does it mean to be wise and
compassionate? That's a hard question for me to answer. In my daily
life, how do I be wise and compassionate in relationship with my
wife when I'm in conflict, or with my children or my friends? What do
I do about Kosovo and my government to be a decent human being?
This is an age in which, somebody said, you have to become heroic
just to be decent! And that isn't a gender question. What's injuring the
world here isn't gender. In America, women are just as injurious to
the world as men are. They're out there in the malls. The mall is
where we vote about values. Why did we do what we did in Iraq?
So we could drive to the mall. And again, I think what I object to about
your magazine is the lack of the real political kinds of questions. All
afternoon you haven't asked me anything about the politics of
WIE: Well, our magazine is about enlightenment.
SK: Well, that's what's wrong with it, then. Frankly, that's what's
wrong with it. It's kind of narcissistic. There's a lot of spiritual
narcissism, I think. Now, that's not to say it's completely that way.
You do come out of it and you do have the courage to speak with
people who aren't particularly in sympathy with your major point of
view. But let me ask: What would it be like if, on your cover,
underneath the words "What Is Enlightenment?" you put: "One
definition of an enlightened person might be that the first question
they would ask is: What is just? How do we establish justice?"
Because that takes us into the political realm. That takes us beyond
the obsession. And the obsession with enlightenment can be just like
the obsession with gender. People who are obsessed with
enlightenment are never going to get there.
WIE: This is a common argument against the pursuit of
enlightenment. But I don't see the question "How do we establish
justice?" as being in any way removed from the question "What is
enlightenment?" If we look at the human condition, if we look at
what's behind the atrocities in Kosovo or Nazi Germany, it seems to
me that we have to confront the question: How is humanity's problem
going to be solved without individuals making a change, without
individuals coming to a reckoning with themselves, with their own
motivations? Our magazine is actually founded in the idea that there
is a strong moral and ethical component to liberating ourselves
In this issue, for instance, we're questioning the core of gender
identity because, as you've pointed out, it seems that the strong
identification most of us have with gender is one of the fundamental
structures underlying the conflict we see in the world. And the idea
is that if enough light can be brought to something so fundamental
to our makeup, then hopefully we can begin to see, and even
respond to, another possibility.
SK: Well, good. Transforming the self and transforming our society
are warp and woof of the same tapestry. It takes both to weave
anything hopeful, beautiful and new.
File Created: 2/16/02 Last Updated: 3/17/02