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In a spiritual practice, it can sometimes be necessary to transmute and sublimate the sexual energies in order to strengthen the spiritual aspiration
By Roberto Assagioli, Source: Psychosynthesis Research Foundation, issue no. 13
The problem of sex
The problem of sex, the problem of how to deal in a sane and constructive way with the sexual drive, has confronted humanity ever since the beginning of civilization. But, for various reasons, this problem has now become more compelling, and public awareness of it is more acute to use a current phrase, humanity has become definitely sex-conscious.
The crisis in the relations between the sexes is not isolated but forms part and perhaps can be said to be the outstanding aspect of the general crisis which is deeply affecting the very foundations of existing civilization.
The authority of the religious and moral principles on which our civilization was based, the rules and customs which were formerly taken for granted and accepted (even if not always consistently applied) have lost or are rapidly losing their prestige, their binding and regulating power; even more, the younger generation is actively, and at times violently, revolting against them. The main cause of this crisis has been the fact that, while the religious fervor and the unquestioned acceptance of the theological and moral conceptions of the past have been rapidly losing their grip, the older and rigidly orthodox groups have attempted by sheer authority to enforce the strict rules, condemnations and prohibitions based on those theological and moralistic foundations.
Thus, in the past, in the sexual domain an attitude prevailed which led public opinion to regard the biological instincts and the human passions as bad and impure. Therefore, the method enjoined for dealing with them was that of suppression, except when the sex urge could find a justified satisfaction in lawful marriage. The whole subject of sex was considered improper, and adults tried to keep young people ignorant about it as long as possible.
The sexual liberation
The weakening of the religious influence on which that attitude was based, and the realization of the injurious effects of that suppression on health and character evoked various movements of revolt. First we had the “return to nature” advocated by Rousseau and his followers; then the glorification of feeling by the romantic movement; later, revival of the hedonistic and aesthetic ideas of ancient Greece and the Renaissance, followed- by the wave of philosophical and practical materialism, and the individualistic revolt against society and its norms as portrayed by Ibsen. Perhaps more important in modern society has been the influence of Freud and his followers of the psychoanalytic movement, which emphasized the psychopathological effects of sexual repression. All these concurred to foster and justify the uncontrolled gratification of all drives and impulses, the letting loose of every passion, the following of every whim.
But the result of this “liberation” did not produce the expected satisfaction and happiness. While it eliminated some of the drawbacks of the earlier rigid attitude and the consequent suffering, it produced other complications, conflicts and misery. The followers of uncontrolled sexual expression found, and are still finding, that excesses are necessarily followed by exhaustion or disgust; that the sexual drive and passion, even when not checked by moral considerations, cannot always find gratification owing to lack of suitable partners. Moreover, various drives often come into conflict with each other, so that indulgence in one requires the inhibition of another. For instance, a reckless yielding to sexual urge is apt to clash with self-preservation, creating a conflict between, for instance, lust and fear of disease. Further, an exaggerated sense of self-assertion may be in conflict with social mores and the consequent fear of the risks involved.
The lack of any stable guiding principle, of any clear scale of values, makes the individual insecure, robs him of self-reliance, and subjects him to the influence of other people and external circumstances. Moreover, ethical and spiritual principles or aspirations cannot be eliminated as easily as many seem to believe; they persist in the unconscious owing to hereditary and environmental influences, and also exist latent in the true spiritual nature of man. When violated, they arouse conscious or unconscious protest and consequently intense inner conflicts.
For clarity’s sake, the picture of the situation has been oversimplified. In reality we are at present in a period of transition, of confusion and of cross-currents. In some places and groups the old conditions persist; old concepts and methods are still being enforced. In many cases a state of violent reaction and of conflict between the generations prevails. In the more advanced and enlightened circles the exaggerated nature of the reaction has been recognized and attempts are being made to find and adopt balanced views and sound methods.
It is apparent that neither of the two extreme attitudes can give satisfactory results. One might think that some compromise between the two could be the way out of the impasse, but while such a common-sense procedure might avert the worst results of those extremes, experience indicates that it cannot be considered a satisfactory solution.
Transmutation and its effect
However, there is another alternative, a more dynamic and constructive way of handling the problem. This is based on, and takes advantage of, a fundamental property of biological and psychological energies, namely, the possibility of their transmutation -a possibility existing in all energies.
The real nature of the process is not well known, but such is the case with all “ultimates.” For instance, it cannot be claimed that we have grasped the essential nature of electricity, but we know enough about its manifestations and the laws regulating them to enable us to utilize electricity in many diverse and often complicated ways, as in electronics. It is the same in the psychological field; we need not ascertain the ultimate nature of the psychological energies and their transmutations in order to utilize them increasingly through a growing knowledge of the laws that govern them and by means of appropriate and efficient methods based on those laws. We can therefore proceed confidently in our examination of the methods to be followed in the utilization for constructive ends of surplus or excessive sexual drives. This is particularly valuable, for instance, in balancing the sexual appetites of man and wife in marriage, or adjusting to situations where normal sexual relations are not available.
The first rule is to adopt an objective attitude towards sex, free from the traditional reactions of fear, prudishness and condemnation, as well as from the lure and glamour – often artificially fostered – by which it is generally surrounded at present.
The sexual drive, like any other, is in itself neither “bad” nor “good.” It is a biological function and, as such, it is not “immoral” but pre-moral. It has a great importance because it ensures the continuity of the animal species and of the human race. In animals it is subject to natural cyclic self-regulation. In civilized humanity it has become complicated through its close association with psychological functions, such as emotion and imagination, and with social and ethical factors, which have partly over-stimulated, partly inhibited it. Therefore, the objective scientific attitude towards the sexual drive should be twofold: we should, on the one hand, eliminate the fears and condemnations, which have the effect of repressing it into the unconscious, as psychoanalysis has demonstrated; and, on the other hand we should exercise a calm but firm control, followed by an active process of transmutation whenever its natural expression is unwarranted.
The processes of psychological transmutation and sublimation are symbolically indicated-although in obscure and abstruse ways-in the writings of alchemists (Tung} 9b). Other hints can be found in the works of writers on asceticism and mysticism such as Evelyn Underhill. In the modern approach to the subject we find the following significant statement by Freud: “The elements of the sexual instinct are characterized by a capacity for sublimation; for changing their sexual aim into another of a different kind and socially more worthy. To the sum of energies thus gained for our psychological productions we probably owe the highest results of our culture.” (Freud: Ueber Psychoanalyse, Leipzigund Wien, Deutike 910, pp. 61-62) *.
Definition of sexuality
This statement is important, for in it Freud himself shows the fallacy of considering the physical and instinctive aspects of sexuality separately and independently from its emotional and other psychological aspects. Yet this fallacy is committed by some investigators having a materialistic bias. Such a purely zoological consideration is altogether one-sided, and while those investigators have piled up a huge mass of facts the neglect of their vital connection with the psychological aspect of sex which is the truly human one vitiates the conclusions drawn from them. James Hinton wittily remarked over half a century ago that to deal with the great fact of sexual love merely from the physical side would be like thinking, during a concert by Sarasate, of the cat’s bowels and the horses tail used in making the violin strings and bow (Ellis, 6).
In seeking to define the nature of sexuality we find in it three principal aspects:
1. A sensual aspect: physical pleasure;
2. An emotional aspect: union with another person;
3. A creative aspect: the birth of a new creature.
This classification does not claim to be scientifically accurate but constitutes a practical aid in the process of transmutation. Each of the aspects mentioned can be transmuted or sublimated in accordance with its own specific nature.
Direction of transmutation
Moreover, transmutations can take place in two directions.
The first is the “vertical” or inward direction. Many instances of this kind of sublimation are offered by the lives and writings of the mystics of all times, places and religions. Their autobiographies furnish most interesting evidence of the nature of this process, its crises and vicissitudes, the suffering it entails as well as the joys which reward its stress and strain. All of them speak of the “bliss” they experience – which, however, they regard as a possible hindrance if one becomes attached to it. One can also observe the different steps leading from human love to love for a higher Being, such as the Christ, or for God Himself; this is the sublimation of the emotional aspect. They aspire to union with the Christ within, and some of them speak of it as the “mystical marriage.” In psychological terms, one would say that the goal of spiritual synthesis is the union of the personality with the spiritual Self, the first representing the negative feminine pole, the other the positive masculine pole. This polarity is a reality and not just a simple symbolical transposition of a biological fact. It is one of the fundamental aspects of the spirit-matter polarity and is, so to speak, its reflection on the psycho-spiritual level, as sexual polarity is its expression on the physical level.
Let us pause here for a moment in order to dissipate certain confusions and misunderstandings that might arise. While the process of transmutation and sublimation can frequently be observed, one must not infer there from that all spiritual love is “merely” the outcome of sublimated sex, that it is possible to “explain away” a higher psychological or spiritual manifestation by attributing its origin to biological sources or drives. The true nature of mysticism cannot be considered, as some investigators have maintained, to be merely a product or by-product of sex. On the one hand, one finds many people whose normal sexual life is inhibited yet who show no trace of mysticism; on the other hand, there are instances of people leading a normal sexual life, raising a family, etc., and having at the same time genuine mystical experiences.
The spiritual life and consciousness belongs to a definite psychological level and has a quality which is specific and not derived. The transmuted energies reach up to it from below, as it were, and give it added vitality and “heat,” but they neither create nor explain that higher life. The creative aspect can be sublimated in this “vertical” direction in the formation of a new regenerated personality. The growth of the “inner man” calls for these creative energies, and in accordance with the degree to which the individual employs them, new spheres of action of increasing vastness will open up before him.
The second direction of the transmutation process is “horizontal” or external. Here also we find three kinds of transmutation, corresponding to the three aspects. The first, rather than being actual transmutation, consists of the substitution of other pleasures of the senses for sexual pleasure, from simple enjoyment of food to the enjoyment of contact with nature and to aesthetic pleasures by the cultivation of the appreciation of beauty through sight and hearing. The second consists of an enlargement or extension of love so as to include a growing number of individuals; the third produces or fosters artistic and intellectual activities.
When the physical sexual expression of human love is blocked for some reason, its emotional or feeling manifestations can be enhanced and reach a high level of ideal, “platonic” love. Further, independently of any obstacle to the free and complete expression of love, a gradual process of transmutation takes place normally and spontaneously in harmoniously married couples. At the beginning, the sexual and intensely emotional manifestations of love generally predominate, but in the course of years and decades this passionate aspect cools off and is transmuted into tender feeling, increasing mutual understanding, appreciation and inner communion.
The love-energy derived from sexual sublimation can and does expand beyond love of one individual. It extends in concentric circles or spheres, encompassing ever larger groups of human beings. In the form of compassion it is poured upon those who suffer; then it undergoes a further transmutation and becomes a motive power for social and philanthropic action. Sublimated love-energy can also be expressed as comradeship and friendship for those with whom we have a common basis of understanding, aims and activity. Finally, it can reach out further until it radiates as brotherly love upon all human beings and upon all living creatures.
The third kind of transmutation of the sexual energies is into creative activities of an artistic or intellectual nature. The following statement by a great philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, strongly bears out this point:
“In the days and in the hours in which the tendency to voluptuousness is stronger .. just then also the higher spiritual energies .. are apt to be aroused most strongly. They are inactive when mans consciousness has yielded to lust, but through effective effort their direction can be changed and then man’s consciousness is occupied, instead of with those lower and tormenting desires, by the highest activities of the mind.”
Sexual energy and artistic creation
There appears to be a deep similarity between sexual energy and the creative energies operating at other levels of the human being. Artistic creation offers a particularly suitable channel for sublimation, and many instances can be found in the lives of great artists, writers and composers. One of them, which has a special significance, is that of Richard Wagner. As is well known, he was at one time passionately in love with a married woman, Mathilde Wesendonck, to whom he gave music lessons and in whom he found an understanding of and a devotion to his genius which he missed in his first wife, Minna. After a short time they resolved to renounce the consummation of their love, and Wagner left Zurich and went, or rather fled, to Venice. At first his desperate mood induced ideas of suicide, but soon he set himself to write both the libretto and music of Tristan and Isolde, and in a kind of creative frenzy, completed the opera within a few months. During this period he wrote many letters to Mathilde and kept a diary intended for her. These were published after his death and in them one can clearly trace the gradual cooling off of his passion as he gave expression to it in the poetry and music of his opera. The completion of the work found him so detached that he wrote to Mathilde in a rather tepid and much lighter vein, and even paid her a short visit on purely friendly terms. That Wagner was aware of this process of sublimation and consciously fostered it is evident from a letter to Liszt: “As in my life I have never enjoyed the true happiness of love, I want to raise a monument to this most beautiful of all dreams, in which this love shall be fully satisfied, from beginning to end. I am planning a ‘Tristan and Isolde’.”
The process of transmutation and sublimation
Transmutation and sublimation is a process that can be either spontaneous or consciously and deliberately fostered and brought about. In the latter case, there is ample scope for the effective application of the facts and laws ascertained or rediscovered by modern dynamic psychology, and for the use of active techniques based on them. Here are some practical methods for such applications:
1. A firm conscious control of the drive to be transmuted, in which, however, care should be taken to avoid any condemnation or fear of it, as this could result in its repression in the unconscious. Non-condemnation of the drive, as such, does not imply a lack of realization of one’s serious responsibility for the consequences, both individual and social, of its unregulated expression. Control can be helped by simple physical means, such as brisk muscular activity and rhythmic breathing, but the most effective, and at the same time the higher, way of controlling both the sexual and the power drives is the acceptance and recognition of every human being as a “Thou” to be respected, and not as an “object” for the gratification of our pleasure, an “it” to be dominated and exploited. The reality of such a basic “right relation” to our fellowmen and our duty to recognize it have been convincingly expounded and emphasized by Martin Buber (2).
2. The active release, development and expression of the various aspects of personal and spiritual love – love for one’s mate; love for others, beginning with those close to one and expanding to include increasing numbers of human beings in ever-widening circles and “upwards” towards God or the Supreme. The emphasis should be put on the expression of love – in understanding and cooperation in altruistic and humanitarian activities.
3. The deliberate projection of one’s interest, aspiration and enthusiasm towards some creative work into which all one’s energies can be poured. Various techniques for creative expression can be used for this purpose, such as drawing, writing, movement (Assagioli, 1).
4. The use of symbols. These exercise a strong attractive power on all our energies, conscious and unconscious, and specifically foster the process of transmutation. Jung in his Contributions to Analytical Psychology (9) went so far as to state: “The psychological machinery which transmutes energy is the symbol.” There is a great variety of symbols having an anagogic (uplifting) influence that can be made to serve this process, of which ideal human figures or “models” constitute an important class. Two types of these ideal figures, different and in a sense opposite, are respectively suited to men and women. A man may visualize some hero or a human-divine Being, such as the Christ, or he can use the image of an ideal woman like Dante’s Beatrice or the Madonna. Inversely a woman can take as a model the highest type of womanhood her imagination can conceive or an image of the ideal Man. The influence of such “images” is beautifully expressed in the Indian saying: “Ganga (the sacred river) purifies when seen and touched, but the Holy Ones purify when merely remembered.”
A simple and effective symbol is the lotus plant which transmutes the mud and water of the pond into the delicate substance and beautiful form and hue of its flower. This it does through its own inherent vitality and through the life-giving energy of the sun’s rays. Desoille in his therapeutic method of the guided day-dream (4a) has made use of symbolic movement upward for the purpose of sublimation and transformation. Kretschmer (10) has summarized various techniques of imagery which can be used to foster this process of sublimation. Other anagogic symbols may be produced spontaneously in dreams and in free drawing; Jung and his followers (E. Harding (8), F. Wickes (13) and others) have made an extensive study and application of them.
5. Close psychological communion with individuals or groups who have realized, or are striving to realize, the same aim. As there are chemical catalysts, so there are “human catalysts,” whose influence, radiation, and the “atmosphere” they create, greatly facilitate psychological transformations.
The importance and value of transmutation and sublimation-not only of the sexual energies but of all other drives – should be more widely known and appreciated, and the methods for putting them in operation should be more extensively applied in psychotherapy, education, and self-actualization. The process of transmutation and sublimation may be compared to the regulation of the waters of a great river, which prevents recurring disastrous inundations or the formation of unhealthy marshes along its banks. While a portion of the water is permitted to flow freely to its natural destination, the remainder is diverted through proper channelling to appropriate mechanisms that transform its energy into electricity to be employed as motive power for industrial and other purposes. In a parallel way, the conscious or unconscious drives, which produce so much individual suffering and social disturbance, can become, if rightly controlled and channelled, the springs of activities having great human and spiritual value.
- Assagioli, R.: “Creative Expression in Education,” American Journal of Education, 1963, No.1.
- Buber, M.: I and Thou, New York, Scribners, 1958.
- Davies, J. Trevor: Sublimation, London, Allen & Unwin, 1947. New York, Macmillan, 1948.
- Desoille, R.: Exploration de l’affectivité subconsciente par 1’a méthode du révé éveillé. Sublimation et acquisitions psycho10giques, Paris, D’Artrey, 1938.
- Desoille, R.: Le Réve éveillé en psychothérapie, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1945.
- Ellis, H.: Little Essays of Love and Virtue, New York, Doubleday, 1962.
- Ellis, Mrs. H.: Three Modern Seers: Hinton, Nietizche and Carpenter, London, Stanley, 1910.
- Hadfield, J. A.: Psychology and Morals, London, Methuen, 1923. New York, McBride, 1925.
- Harding, M. E.: Psychic Energy: Its Source and its Goal, New York, Pantheon Books, 1947.
- Jung, CG.: Contributions to Analytical Psychology, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1928.
- Jung, CG.: The Integration of the Personality, London, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner, 1940. New York, Farrar & Rinehart, 1939.
- Jung, CG.: Psychology and Alchemy. Collected Works, Vol. 12, London, Kegan Paul, 1953. New York, Pantheon, 1953.
- Kretschmer, Jr., W.: Meditative Techniques in Psychotherapy (translated by Wm. Swartley), New York, Psychosynthesis Res. Found., 1959.
- McDougall, W.: The Energies of Men, London, Methuen, 1932. New York, Scribner, 1933.
- Sorokin, P. A.: The Ways and Power of Love (Types, Factors and Techniques of Moral Transformation), Boston, Beacon Press, 1954.
- Wickes, F. G.: The Inner World of Man, London, Methuen, 1950. New York, H. Holt, 1948.
* Many other psychologists have recognized the process of sublimation and dealt with it more or less extensively. Among them are Havelock Ellis (5), McDougall (11), and Hadfield 17). An accurate survey of the subject with many quotations and bibliographical references, has been made by J. Trevor Davies in his book Sublimation (1947) (3). The theoretical problems and the differences of opinion aroused by the subject do not prevent – in this as in other cases – effective use of the process of psychological transmutation.
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