Not too long ago, I wrote an instalment of my “Ask the Sex Geek” column for In Toronto magazine in response to a reader question about trying to find resources on spiritual approaches to sexuality, such as Tantra, that don’t rely on a classic gender binary. Such resources are remarkably hard to find, and as such a lot of them have been a real turn-off for me. For that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Carrellas’s book Urban Tantra: Sex for the 21st Century when it first came out a few years back, precisely because Barbara takes such a refreshingly non-gendered approach to the topic. So I called her up for an interview for the column.
While we were chatting, she told me about her newest book, Ecstasy Is Necessary: A Practical Guide, and asked if I’d be interested in taking part in her virtual book tour, in which she’s “visiting” a number of blogs over the course of a couple of weeks. Of course I jumped on the opportunity since the last one was such a treat! So today I’m posting my review of her book, and I’m weaving it together with her answers to some questions I threw at her. And Barbara’s hanging out here in the comments section, so if you have any questions for her, she’ll jump on in and answer. (Hi Barbara! *waving*)
The short summary: Ecstasy Is Necessary is a book about how to recognize ecstasy and how to cultivate it in your sexual life and relationships, but also in your everyday, mundane experiences of moving through the world. By “ecstasy” Barbara’s not talking about pleasure, per se, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s more like that blissful “something more” feeling you get when all the energies of the Universe are aligned and you are in a state of bliss and connectedness. What’s great about Barbara’s approach to this is that she’s not advocating the rabid pursuit of a particular sort of New Agey high, nor of a specific path to achieving ecstasy, Tantric or otherwise. It’s more like she’s trying to get people to understand how ecstasy is both mundane—in that we can find it anywhere, everywhere—and sacred, if we allow ourselves to take the risk of letting go in order to fully experience it.
Andrea: How would you relate this book to your other work, which is more explicitly on Tantra?
Barbara: It’s funny, I never considered Ecstasy is Necessary to be a Tantra book when I was writing it. But when Tantrika friends of mine read it they marvelled that I’d written a book about Tantra without ever having used the word. I didn’t really understand what they meant until just the other day when I was talking to my partner Kate Bornstein about binaries. I realized that one of the most powerful binaries in our culture—right up there with good/evil, black/white, male/female— is sex/god. Tantra is a word that breaks that sex/god binary because it contains elements of both sexuality and spirituality. Ecstasy is another word that breaks that binary. The word ecstasy implies a sexual orgasmic state but also make us think of nuns, saints, shamans and spiritual seekers in religious trance.
I also think Ecstasy is Necessary is Tantric in its approach because of its emphasis on conscious practices and mindfulness. Having written extensively about how those relate to energy and the body, I wanted to apply those same principles to thought and emotion. It’s my hope that Ecstasy is Necessary will be considered both a prequel and a sequel to Urban Tantra.
One of the first things that struck me about the book was how Barbara’s just so damn grounded about all this stuff. You could read this book as a goddess-worshiping crystal-wearing eye-gazer and still find something new and challenging in it, because the focus isn’t on the mechanics of any particular system—it’s about focusing deeply inward, to the essentials of how to build deep connection with oneself and with a sexual partner. You could read it as an atheist and still understand that our brains can produce ecstatic experience and that we can deliberately create the mental conditions for that to happen. Barbara, for instance, recounts her own experience of thinking herself to orgasm while in an fMRI machine that measured her brain waves and confirmed that yup, indeed, she was coming!
Andrea: On page 18 you make the rather bold statement, echoed in the book’s title, that “ecstasy is medically necessary to the health and well-being of the human body.” Now I know you weren’t writing a science book, so I wasn’t expecting a ton of peer-reviewed research to be cited here, but this statement has me awfully curious, especially since you clearly believe this on enough of a fundamental level to title your book with the idea. So – tell me more! I want some nerdy! In what ways is science beginning to acknowledge ecstasy as a medical necessity?
Barbara: Here’s the gist: this is based on Wilhelm Reich, who said that orgasm (the full, whole body kind, not the hiccups some people call orgasm) was physically necessary for health and well-being. Nothing short of full out orgasm could fully release tension. Long held, deep seated tension was the cause of much of the illnesses we suffer from. Orgasm is, so to speak, the human reset button. I take it a step further. Ecstasy, with its spiritual component, is, in my view as or more necessary. Not only does it release aforementioned tension, it never fails to create an Ah-Hah moment, in which we see possibilities we hadn’t seen before. It keeps us growing and striving. It’s the spiritual reset button.
I like this book because I think Barbara’s asking all the right questions. For instance, she has a whole section on figuring out what your values are. It sounds like a boring thing – y’know, like how are, say, “honesty” or “punctuality” really related to ecstasy? But what she’s getting at is that knowing who you are and what’s important to you is a first step in figuring out how to be able to most deeply connect—with yourself, with your partners, with the broader woo-woo energies out there in the world. I ask this same question in my 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy, but Barbara takes things several steps further, in that she provides practical homework-style exercises for figuring out the answers.
Andrea: You have a really great section on defining your core values. And you provide step-by-step instruction for figuring them out, which I’ve never seen before. How did you go about developing these steps?
Barbara: How nice to speak to someone who understands the importance of values in relationships!
The steps in the book are based on an exercise that Hayley Caspers uses in her corporate training workshops. Hayley is one of my oldest and dearest friends and has produced my work worldwide. We have been obsessed with the importance of values in relationships for years. I had a very personal reason for choosing to write about this now. Just before I began to outline Ecstasy is Necessary I went through a horribly painful breakup of a relationship I really treasured. I asked myself, “How did a relationship that was so ecstatic go so wrong?” I realized that my lover and I had radically different values regarding an issue that was deeply important to her. No amount of behavioral compromise will heal an issue when what are really being compromised are your deepest core values. When you aren’t consciously aware of your core values it’s easy to find yourself compromising them. I wanted to come up with a simple, accurate and effective way of arrive at one’s values. When we know what our values are, we know when they’re being violated. When we can talk about that, we can find ways to settle conflicts that are in alignment with our core values.
Now, for all that Barbara doesn’t spend time in this book teaching any formal system for getting at greater self-understanding and ecstatic experience, she nevertheless makes a ton of room for the vast range of systems that are out there—including Tantra, but also including, for instance, the highly varied collection of practices that is BDSM. Her earlier book, Urban Tantra, similarly made space for BDSM as a path to ecstatic experience, which is remarkably rare and which, for me, was incredibly validating.
I often find that people tend to grab onto the system that works for them and then preach it, and the loudest ones doing that also tend to pooh-pooh the other systems. So a lot of the Tantric and West-Coast-y spiritual sexual healing culture I’ve been exposed to tends to get very invested in all the technical details of their practice and look askance at sadomasochism. A speaker at a conference I attended many years ago went so far as to say that SMers were clearly not having deep and meaningful sex because it was all just so violent. And along that same continuum, I certainly feel like an outsider when I go to a yoga studio sporting a black leather mat bag, eleven piercings above the neck and a motorcycle jacket, not because I don’t know the yoga lingo or can’t do a downward dog, but because I don’t fit into the culture that has built up around the practice—I don’t have “yoga friends.” I show up, do my thing, and nobody asks me out for spirulina shots with the girls afterward, y’know?
On the flip side, SMers have a set of cultural norms too—certainly there’s a lot of room for spirituality within SM practice, but the average leather bar wouldn’t exactly know what to do with someone who showed up in purple robes and wanted to cast a circle. We may understand how you can achieve transcendence through a solid flogging or piercing scene, but eye-gazing and bottom breathing (no, not that kind of bottom! or that one either!) aren’t exactly taught at your standard SM 101 workshop.
And yet, these are all practices that focus on deep connection with self and others, and that use breath, pleasure and the body as routes to connect with ecstasy or wholeness. It’s about bloody time someone started articulating the connections in a way that’s accessible to people from several sides of the cultural divides, rather than simply trying to explain one of them to the other, or touting one system as The Way. Barbara explicitly makes room for both SM and Tantra without requiring that you buy into the trappings and cultures of either, or any other trappings or cultures for that matter, in order to find your own path to ecstatic experience. She speaks simply but without condescension; she recognizes her position of privilege as a professional sexual explorer without making the reader feel like they’re sitting on the bleachers while the cool kids get to play. It’s such a fucking relief.
Andrea: How do you see the relationship between energy-based, spiritually-inclined sexual practice and BDSM?
Barbara: Hah, speaking of binaries! Tantra and BDSM were once thought of as polar opposites—never the twain shall meet. Well, today they meet up in some variation in every play space I step into. Many people practice BDSM as an extremely spiritually-inclined, energy-based sexual practice. Personally, I find it thrilling and profound to consciously apply everything I learned in my study of Tantra to BDSM. And the most frequent request I get from the Tantrikas who sign for my Urban Tantra® Professional Training Program is for help in learning the “Dark Arts.”
Andrea: What do you think your readers will make of your frequent references to BDSM and various forms of non-monogamy? Would you say you’re doing political work by weaving those references into the fabric of your approach, or is it more of just your own particular worldview, such that it would be strange for you to suppress it? Who are you trying to challenge or make productively uncomfortable? Who are you trying to include or make comfortable?
Barbara: It really is hard for me to suppress any side of my life and my teachings—I feel so passionately about it all. I also feel an urgency to bring everyone to the erotic table, which in my world, is a smorgasbord. Take what you like, leave what you don’t, but be sure to try at least one new thing. Then let’s sit down and enjoy it all together. As for politics, I think of myself as very apolitical in comparison to so many of my friends and colleagues. But if the personal is political, then I do have a political agenda set on coalition building. I want to increase the breadth, depth and substance of sex positivity. It’s not my intention to make anyone uncomfortable, because I don’t find that works very well. Quite the opposite, it is my intent to make everyone as comfortable as possible, not just in their own sexual/erotic skin, but also when in the company of people of very different sexual persuasions, identities or preferences. We don’t all have to fuck each other, but we do need to do more than simply respect each other’s sexuality and identities. We need to embrace each other’s sexualities and identities—even celebrate them.
The book also has an excellent section on boundaries. For all that they’re fundamental to good relationships with both self and others, boundaries are a really challenging topic to tackle. Some of us need our boundaries to become less rigid; some of us need them to become firmer. Some of us need to test and stretch; some of us need to ground, root, take shelter. Sometimes our boundaries serve us and protect us; sometimes they limit us and sap our ability to connect. Again, Barbara navigates this territory with grace, and better yet, with a ton of practical tips on how to figure out your own boundaries, communicate them to others, and make sure you in turn understand theirs. On this count alone I’m likely to recommend Ecstasy Is Necessary when I teach both SM workshops and non-monogamy workshops, simply because these exercises are so useful for any kind of relational practice… well… anywhere.
Andrea: One of the things I liked best in the book is your idea of the “magic room” instead of the idea of a “safe space.” I’ve always had an instinctive mistrust for the idea of “safe space,” because who can really promise that anything will be safe, let alone for a whole group of people? And if someone’s promising something they can’t possibly know for a fact they can provide, then how can you trust them at all? Anyway, can you say more about this “magic room” idea? How do you create it? What are its key components?
Barbara: The term Magic Room was coined by my colleague, Swedish sex educator Carl Johan Rehbinder, during a discussion of so-called safe spaces at one of my Urban Tantra® Professional Training Programs. The minute the words fell out of his mouth we all realized that he’d nailed it. Not only could we never guarantee that any space would be 100% safe for everyone, but we didn’t even want things to be that safe. I love Jack Morin’s theory (from The Erotic Mind) that peak erotic experiences (and peak spiritual experiences as well, I think) are the result of just the right combination of safety and risk. Think about it—isn’t that what makes something feel magic? When you’re dancing on the edge of safety and risk? In Ecstasy is Necessary I wanted to give people an opportunity to find out precisely what they needed to feel safe, but not to encourage them to stay so safe that they never explored their edges. I also gave them guidelines on how to take an erotic risk that would save them from feeling so frightened or overwhelmed that they would retreat to their “safe normal.”
And then there’s Barbara’s grounding in a certain history, with her work hearkening back to a sense of infinite sexual possibility that first emerged, for her, in the heady 1970s, but that has since been filtered through the realities of AIDS and STIs, among others. When I read her book I can feel her sense of grief and loss and rage, as someone who lived through the waves of death that came with the early AIDS pandemic. And yet she hasn’t lost her capacity for joy or vulnerability, and that too comes through in her approach to sex and ecstasy. Hers is not a happy-go-lucky call to ecstasy and joy; it is not a privilege-soaked, product-driven form of trite sex-positivity designed to “spice up your sex life.” It is a fierce determination to reach for joy in sex through devastation, marginalization and pain, and an invitation for readers to join her in that purpose-driven journey not by painting over the challenges and pains that get in the way, but by embracing them and hauling them along for the whole wild and messy ride. The result is a flavour of sex radicalism that is more in-your-soul than in-your-face, but with plenty of grit behind the gentle approach. Her book reads a bit like the way it feels when your trusted best friend hauls you out of bed after you’ve been moping around for too long after something bad happens. A sort of “I love you, honey, now get your shit together. I’m taking you out for lunch.” Except lunch is sex. Or something. My metaphor might be falling apart here, but my point is that Barbara manages to strike just the right balance of firmth and kindness.
Andrea: As a historian (historian-in-training?), I want to ask you some more about the idea you talk about that the 70s were a historical blip in which sex was cool and okay, post-1950s repression but pre-AIDS. Do you think that was broadly accurate? Or was it specifically accurate for a subset of the population, of which you were a part? If it’s the latter, can you describe that population? Certainly we know there was all kinds of yummy stuff going on in gay men’s bathhouses, but you’re speaking about a group that obviously includes people outside gay male culture. Who was having all this crazy fun sex?
Barbara: The 70s were an historical blip in which sex was cool, and this went way beyond gay male subculture. Sexual freedom was everywhere. The youth revolution of the 1960s had become the adult sexual revolution of the 1970s. This was the decade that gave birth to porn chic. Films like The Devil in Miss Jones and Deep Throat were no longer playing only in seedy red light district grindhouses—they were at the local mall cinemas. In New York City, Plato’s Retreat, the legendary swingers club, was, in its heyday, regularly frequented by celebrities. And it wasn’t all porn and sex clubs. There was a ton of excellent material on sexuality published in the 70s. Much of it was published by collectives or by small publishers and are long out of print. Every once in a while I’ll find some incredibly astute and/or esoteric book on sexuality published in the 70s in a garage sale or used bookstore. But some of the books from that era are still on the shelves in new editions. For example, the first edition of the legendary book Our Bodies, Ourselves was published in 1970 and it’s still in print—3 million copies later! Betty Dodson started her women’s BodySex groups in the 70s. It was a wild, experimental time as sex became the most popular and powerful way to celebrate and support women’s liberation and gay liberation.
Ah, history! There are about a dozen PhD thesis topics in just that one paragraph. I will restrain myself from trying to tackle them all personally.
All in all, Ecstasy Is Necessary is gonna be a classic, and one I suspect I’ll be recommending to a lot of people and for a lot of reasons.
I’ll conclude this inter/re/view with a couple of sentences that really struck me on page 169 of the book, and which I think may become one of my own guiding thoughts for this year: “Surrender. You’ve worked hard to get here. Don’t miss a moment of the bliss.”