Saturday, May 05, 2007
The Dew of Immortality
Today is May 5th, my son Lukas' birthday, the ancient Celtic fire festival Beltane (give or take a day or two), Cinco de Mayo, and the Japanese festival known as Boys' Day. Although it has since morphed into a more inclusive "Children's Day", all Japanese know that the festival always was and actually still is Boys' Day (girls have their own Girls' Day on March 3). The quintessential symbol of Boys' Day is the koinobori, large carp-shaped streamers that fill with wind and swim in the air from long bamboo poles. We fly our koinobori every May, and I love how it soars through the air, and I love this celebration of my son's life and good health. The Japanese revere the carp as a symbol of strength and determination, because it fights through obstacles with great spirit, swimming upstream, even scaling waterfalls, to get to where it's going. Some time ago my parents sent me a beautiful little silk painting, of a boy hanging onto the back of a big koinobori. And I thought, all of us boys ride on the back of a monster fish. The fish takes us up and down and all over the place, and we hang on because it is one exhilarating ride - truly the ride of our lives, and in some Darwinian sense the reason for our lives. This fish, of course, is our sexuality.
This essay explores the sex drive from a male, East Asian, alchemical/religious perspective. I vacillate between thinking there's something to it and thinking it's delusional nonsense. I like the idea that we can recognize the tremendous energy of our sexuality and put it to spiritual use. But I have this deep suspicion that most people are better off just enjoying sex as sex, rather than trying to control it for supposedly spiritual ends. Anyway, here it is. Happy Boys' Day!
There is a curious notion, prevalent among certain sections of the alternative medicine and New Age subcultures, that one can improve health and possibly even attain states of spiritual perfection, by recycling one’s sperm. There are many ways to do this. You can be celibate, thereby limiting the number of emissions to those few nighttime incidents that are beyond your control. Or, you can have sex, but refrain from ejaculating through the use of certain tricks of sphincter control and qi redirection. Finally, when all else fails, you can push with your finger on the so-called “Million Dollar Point” located between the anus and the scrotum, to block the escape of semen and reabsorb it in your body.
The origins of this practice are lost in the mists of prehistory, but they almost certainly have to do with ancient man’s realization that sperm holds within it an awesome power – the power to co-create life. What if this power could be harnessed for self-cultivation? This is the origin of celibacy in most Asian religious traditions: a focusing inward of life’s energies, rather than the outward focus of the householder or “man of the world.” Many religious sects rejected sex because it represented attachment to the body and the world, the misdirection of life force into karmic entanglements and away from enlightenment. But a few schools, most notably some South Asian tantric traditions and certain Daoist sects in China, figured out how to have it both ways. They opted to utilize the energies generated by sexual activity, and incorporated non-ejaculatory sex into their rituals. Central to the doctrines of these schools is the importance of what the Chinese have termed jing: the primal “substance” variously translated as “essence,” “sperm,” and “sexual energy.”
In China, what was originally a religious practice became somewhat secularized into what we now call “internal alchemy.” In contrast to the earlier external alchemists, who attempted to create an elixir of immortality out of various minerals and herbs, the internal alchemists believed the elixir was to be created within the body, using many different psycho-spiritual techniques. The goal of the alchemist was to take the awesome life-creating power of jing, transform it into the life-serving vitality of qi (life energy), then finally transmute the qi to arrive at the elixir: a refined force of spiritual potency that circulated through the meridians and conferred health and longevity. Some alchemists insisted that the creation of elixir was a purely internal solo process; others believed the dew of immortality was to be found in the merging of yin and yang that occurred during sex. Whether pro-sex or anti-sex, the alchemists all agreed that the conservation of jing was of paramount importance.
What is interesting to me is that these ideas have become so popular now, in the West. In a culture that regards ejaculation as a healthy “clearing of the pipes,” the popularity of sperm retention seems unlikely. But then again, maybe it’s not so strange that our sex-obsessed society has latched onto this particular aspect of Asian culture.
One man is largely responsible for the current popularity of sperm retention. He is Mantak Chia, a self-proclaimed Daoist master from Thailand who runs workshops and has written a whole slew of how-to books on this topic. Chia has managed to cash in on people’s longing for transcendence, as well as their interest in sex. He teaches basic qigong techniques that are central to all Chinese meditation schools and internal martial arts, but I suspect that his popularity is due primarily to the sexual angle of his instruction. He teaches couples ways of squeezing their muscles and clenching their teeth during sex to re-direct their orgasms inward and upward. For practice prior to attempting the real thing, and as a form of self-cultivation in its own right, Chia teaches methods of self-stimulation combined with breathing and visualization: you might call this "transcendental masturbation". Chia has single-handedly made internal alchemy into a booming business.
In case I sound overly critical, let me point out that I am a firm believer in Chinese methods of meditation and self-cultivation. As an acupuncturist, I teach patients qigong techniques to quiet the mind and circulate the qi. But to me, sperm conservation has the ring of neurosis. I believe that sperm retention thinking is part of a broader cultural pattern prevalent in patriarchal Asia, a pattern that fears female sexual vampirism (and female sexuality generally, since women can have all the sex they want without losing jing) and reacts to this fear by hoarding sperm. This pattern appears in folk tales about fox-women preying on young scholars; it shows up in the large number of acupuncture points and herbal formulas designed to treat spermatorrhea (“sperm leakage”); one could even argue that China’s huge Three Gorges Dam is its national jing obsession writ large.
The main reason I object to the currently popular methods of sperm retention is that they exhibit an extremism that runs counter to the generally middle-of-the-road common sense of traditional Chinese medicine. Suppression of a natural outward energy just seems like it would lead to qi stagnation and possibly even medical problems (in fact, I know of several cases of “blue balls” and benign prostate hyperplasia among would-be internal alchemists; one needed a year of acupuncture with a senior Chinese acupuncturist to undo the energy blockage created after attending one workshop). There is a popular saying in Chinese, “xing ming shuang xiu,” which is commonly translated as something like “A sound mind in a sound body.” What it literally means is the dual cultivation (shuang xiu) of self-nature (xing) and life energies (ming). This saying, which lies at the root of all Chinese methods of health improvement and self-cultivation, reminds us that personal conduct and moral bearing, which have to do with xing, are just as important as the development of the life energies that comprise ming. I believe that the commercialization of qigong and related practices in this country has led to an unhealthy overemphasis on the latter, with a concomitant surge in the popularity of the more unusual, and especially sexual, aspects of Asian health culture.
My goal is not to malign practitioners or instructors of qigong and other Chinese health disciplines. Instead, I caution against dangerous literalism of any sort. I resist the idea that the dew of immortality is any one thing. Our jing, the innermost and deepest source of our creativity, is the energy of the universe transforming matter, spreading over the surface of our planet as desire, as streams of lovers, children, descendants, nucleotides, alkaloids, neurotransmitters, brainwaves, photons, memories, music, stories, words, artifacts coarse and fine, a mystery spreading like a plague through these strange, pulsing, living, mortal things that we are. The elixir bubbles forth through all of creation, shimmering and radiant, if only we are present enough to appreciate it.