My life, like those of most people I know, has been dappled with chance encounters, unpredictable twists and turns, and the kind of non-linear narrative that reads like a stream-of-consciousness novel rather than a tidy memoir with a decisive beginning, middle, and end. The Sturm und Drang of my particular story is one I wouldn’t trade for all the stability and reassurances in the world, however. I think, on some level, my preference has been to explore, seek, travel, and create in the midst of ambiguity.
I know plenty of women who aren’t comfortable with the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants doctrine I’ve adopted. I know, because I was that woman not too long ago. I had the successful husband, the cushy life, the regular vacations, the ten-year plan that mapped out my ambitions and was being fulfilled like clockwork. All the same, things were lacking that special ingredient I couldn’t quite identify. It was bland, predictable, devoid of the natural joy and gusto I felt I should be experiencing. After all, my life was governed by a litany of shoulds. I was educated, attractive, and thriving in most areas of my life—so why didn’t the little details pop out in Technicolor?
Is This Really It?
The answer, as I discovered two years and one divorce later, was simply this: the messages I’d been spoon-fed from infancy about what was supposed to bring me fulfillment—the doting husband, the picket fence, the dream job, the tidy life defined by a series of accomplishments and healthy heaping doses of validation—simply didn’t hold the rose-tinted appeal I thought they would. The very promise of stability, as appealing as it was at first glance, from very far away, was cratered with fault lines and glaring imperfections upon closer examination.
Admittedly, it’s not as if my discoveries were a far stretch from the person I’d already come to identify with: I was a liberal/artsy/feminist/social justice-oriented Berkeley graduate who enjoyed a diverse throng of friends, felt fairly disconnected from my well-meaning but befuddled family members, and ended up marrying a similarly liberal and artsy guy who happened to be white. If I were reading from the guidebook of what it means to maintain a certain sense of respectability and clout as an Indian-American woman, I didn’t seem to fit many of the criteria on the checklist. All the same, I’d managed to cobble together the semblance of a life that “worked,” and divorce felt like the choice that would place me most squarely on the chopping block.
So you see, I was in a deep existential crisis—one that involved spending many sleepless nights wondering, “Is this really it? Is marriage the entire kit and kaboodle?” It was hard to find myself there, because despite my ideas of individuality, independence, and second-generation freedom … I had an essential antipathy to some of the things to which I felt drawn, first and foremost among them the casual attitude many westerners seemed to have when it came to relationships, which felt as disposable as Kleenex tissues. I was American, but I was also fiercely loyal to many of the values that demarcated my immigrant identity. And I was one of the people who absolutely hated Eat Pray Love, wherein author Elizabeth Gilbert’s exotic odyssey of self-discovery stemmed from a self-centered declaration of how oppressed she felt by her unwittingly dumb husband.
Since I was a child, my desired blueprint was all about adventure, love unbounded by rigid obligation, and anything but the status quo. All the same … I’d been indoctrinated by the prevailing seriousness and shadow of arranged marriage, which still loomed above me, even in my denial of it. Perhaps that was why Gilbert’s treatise angered me so much—I knew, on some level, that it was teasing out a part of me that had lived for as long as I could remember, and that was afraid to fully surface.
Then there was the other elephant in the room, which few other married women I knew seemed to talk about: the fact that I was in a marriage that left a lot to be desired, sexually speaking. (This was, of course, woven into a series of other clashing factors in the marriage.) All the same, I had a hard time truly believing that bad sex was a good enough reason to leave a marriage … so I found lots of reasons to stay, and made both of us miserable in the process.
Leaving a marriage, to be sure, is a complex decision to make, one that hinges on so many other micro-decisions and considerations. I’m not saying people should leave simply because they have the impulse, only that they should take time to consider the deeper message behind that impulse. For instance, is it something that’s coming from a voice of fear and desperation or a voice of aliveness and greater truth?
The experience of full aliveness, for me, is stymied by the desire for certainty—which is what held my marriage together. Certainty, for many of us, is signified by tangible markers that we’ve made it in the world. However, the secret we all harbor but few of us are willing to completely cop to, is that this desire to know exactly what’s what is a flimsy illusion that not even the most skilled conjurer can maintain for too long. What most of us really want is the ability to take all of the energy of life and move with it fully and authentically, to be open to whatever comes around rather than shut down because of fear or habit. Ultimately, that’s what I chose.
Orgasmic Meditation (OM)
Shortly after I left my ex-husband, I discovered a practice known as orgasmic meditation (or, simply, OM). OM is a two-partner practice that enables both people to experience a greater degree of pleasure in their bodies through deep attention to sensation. Essentially, it’s a sexuality practice that offers both partners a stronger, more nuanced experience of orgasmic sensation—one that isn’t limited to what we think of as “climax.”
While OM is a sexual practice, it is also a goalless practice; that is, it’s not his job to make her climax, and it’s not her job to offer a show-stopping performance proving how turned on she is. Rather, OM practitioners strip away all the things that may unconsciously keep them from opening up to a broad spectrum of feelings and sensations (this includes speeding toward a climax or trying to be “sexy,” whatever that means)—simply by staying attentive to the moment.
It’s apt that OM saw its genesis in San Francisco (and I say that with a mixture of cynicism and fondness). Certainly, the practice is eyebrow-raising for plenty of people—Indian Americans only being one group in the great populace of people harboring questions like, “Why would you let someone touch your genitals, and what are they getting out of it to begin with?”
I am often faced with ambivalence and a sense of incredulity when I describe the practice to others, which is fraught with plenty of assumptions, myths, and misconceptions of what it actually entails. For one thing, it’s not necessary to do the practice with a complete stranger, and OM isn’t the same as partnered masturbation (no matter what the naysayers will tell you). It’s a sensation-based meditation that has proven to be powerful for many people in the realm of healing shame and trauma, experiencing deep pleasure rather than disassociating during the act of sex, and learning to place our attention on what’s actually happening in our bodies and in our environments rather than grabbing for eye candy and more stimulation.
Talking About Sex
For me, all of the above were important, given that my incipient experiences with sexuality were rooted in fear and a deep mistrust of my body. From a young age, I was accustomed to the standard-issue tongue waggings from parents and other relatives, which seemed to come with the territory of being a woman. Although nobody in my family really talked about sex, it definitely came with more than one cautionary label.
The primary, albeit implicit, message that was handed down to me was: “Sex is something that happens between married people, and you’re a whore if you do it in any other context.” Period. There was never any talk about desire, pleasure, or sex being an essential aspect of our selfhood—which were all truths that a part of me could not be silenced from eventually speaking.
So OM became a way to access the deeply complex, and deeply satisfying realm of pleasure—something I believe I’d been numb to for most of my life.
Audre Lorde famously wrote, “The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.”
The Limbic Connection
OM as a practice has increased my own ability to connect to my body, to my desires, and to my deepest core truths. It’s tied to an entire body of scientific research being done around what people call the “limbic connection.” The limbic system is that part of the brain that handles the regulation of emotions, behavior, and feeling and connection. Studies have shown that our ability to feel seems to be a flexible capacity that can be improved through training—in other words, our bandwidth can, in fact, be expanded.
Limbic resonance is at the core of organic communication, but we’ve been trained to shut down when we feel pain or imminent danger. This can be exacerbated by traumatic experiences, which teaches us to disconnect from our feelings. It can lead to a whole host of consequences, ranging from emotional confusion to abuse of our own bodies to eating disorders and other diseases. We further social structures that perpetuate hatred, division, and rancor; we destroy our environment (since we aren’t in resonance with it); we begin to view other people as our enemies; and we engage in behavior that isolates us from others and the thing we desire most: connection.
All of this can shift as you grow your limbic capacity. You then not only have room to feel your own experience but to take in that of others—and this is absolutely vital to empathy. Orgasmic meditation (OM) is a practice that grows this capacity. (In retrospect, I think it’s a practice that could’ve saved my marriage, but that’s a different story.)
From my experience, many of us (especially the growing South Asian American population) are undergoing an evolution in consciousness. It typically begins with a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with the things that our cultures, families, friends, media, and self-help pundits have told us would deliver fulfillment. But we are also dealing with insatiable hunger, the kind that we are all too accustomed to either never nourishing or completely overindulging. In truth, the hunger is far deeper than most of us imagine. It is the hunger for orgasm, for the sense of expansiveness that will enable us to be fully absorbed in our lives, that will ensure there is no longer a disconnection between our inner selves and our outer selves.
A Peak Experience
When I talk about orgasm, I am not referring to the bounded fifteen-second experience of physical climax during a sexual act. In the model I work with, orgasm is much, much more expansive. Climax is simply one peak experience of a much larger entity that few of us have taken the time to fully explore. This larger definition of orgasm exists inside each of our bodies and is accessible at any time. It is the experience that comes when there is no physical or emotional resistance to pleasure in the body.
Because orgasm creates such an immediate point of contact with our bodies and the world of the senses, it is in our experience with our sex that we perhaps most potently intuit our life force—that enigmatic but omnipresent energy (often referred to as “prana” or “chi”) that swirls around us and surges through us at all times.
The practice of OM is fundamentally built on a model of female orgasm. This isn’t to say that women alone have access to it—just that it marks a departure from our male-centric idea of climax: a spike in sensation, the experience of going over the edge, ejaculation, a loss of interest, and the sense that a decisive goal has been reached. While many women (and men) experience climax, there are also many who do not.
At the same time, all of us, particularly women, actually have access to the experience of orgasm: its winding detours, its capacity for nuanced sensation, and its extensive quality, which isn’t really about “getting” somewhere. Orgasm doesn’t end with climax—in fact, it doesn’t really end at all. In many ways, it’s not about getting to a grand finale; it’s about naturally arriving at a sense of gratification and fullness, whether or not climax occurs in the process. In this model, orgasm is large, sustained over a period of time, continuous, and never frustrated by the expectation of climax. In this model, expectations are mitigated by in-the-moment enjoyment. In fact, orgasm is something that is fed by surrender to uncertainty.
Using the practice of OM, I have come to understand that orgasm isn’t so much an experience as a potential, an untapped power of staggering force that is already innately a part of us. Unfortunately, we aren’t really taught to access orgasm but to keep it confined to very specific moments in our life—usually, the bedroom or an idle masturbation session. But orgasm is far from a frivolous luxury or vestigial benefit; it’s about a deep sense of connection to our bodies—one that enables us to trust ourselves in every moment, and to live from pleasure rather than fear or stigma.
Spreading the Gospel of Desire
Change is a frightening scenario for most of us, especially when our culture is keen on inundating women with bleak statistics and dismal alternatives. Leave your high-power job or high-power man, and you’ll be out on the streets, or you’ll be alone for the rest of your life. And, to be sure, for many women, certain misery is a sweeter option than indeterminate pleasure. But while the possibility of doom and gloom might always be there, so is the very real prospect of true happiness … and usually, the experience we find ourselves reeling in has more to do with where we place our attention and how adaptable we are to change than with the actual circumstances themselves.
I think it’s incumbent upon new generations of South Asians to break out of conditioning that keeps us disconnected from our bodies (and each other), and mired in attitudes that are austere, conformist, and fearful. Through my work in spreading the gospel of desire, I’m not encouraging people to make irresponsible decisions, but merely to engage with a part of themselves that may have been castrated by social mandates—a part of themselves that perhaps has a greater decision-making capacity than we have accorded it.
The face of South Asian sexuality itself is rapidly changing, as our society evolves. Some may think the changes are for the worse, and that we are simply casting aside one culture’s norms for another’s. But I believe that many of the trends we are experiencing within our community—from higher rates of divorce, to interracial relationships, to the visibility of homosexual and transgendered people, to the politicization of women’s sexual freedom—are signaling us toward the importance of choosing and making visible what we know to be essentially true. I believe that despite the notion that such things lead to the breakdown of the social fabric as we know it, we are weaving an altogether new tapestry—one that is inclusive, truthful, and that values true connection over obligation.
Tantra and OM
Speaking of the metaphor of weaving, the term “tantra” stems from the Sanksrit word for web or warp—the interweaving of qualities such as “conscious” and “unconscious,” “male” and “female,” within a person. Tantra is about union, surrender, and the dissolution of conflict in the recognition of our essential sacredness. OM doesn’t posit itself as a tantric activity (thank goodness, as the neo-tantric emphasis on sex as the primary ingredient admittedly raises my hackles), but from my experience, it is very much steeped in some of the same characteristics as tantra.
Like tantra, OM suggests that we transform sex obsession into sex integration, and that at the same time, we view the path of desire as a viable exploration, and consider mundane experience and sensation as aspects of a much larger totality. Like tantra, OM asks that we leave nothing out, that we consider even our shame, shadow, and most secret admissions as places where enlightenment can be found.
My Personal Journey
When my marriage ended, I was several thousand dollars in debt and face to face with a suddenly vague future that infused even my smallest decisions with a new sense of urgency. But, to my own surprise, I was having a hell of a time. I think I was able to keep a sense of humor about my successes and failures, because the feeling of waking up to this completely new life in which nothing was fixed or assured was exhilarating. The sense of entitlement I’d unconsciously assumed in my former life, as it turned out, had been a buzzkill, not a panacea.
The thing about following one’s desire is you eventually come to terms with the fact that it’s not an intellectual choice based on a series of factors you piece together to determine the outcome. Desire is its own reason for existing, and it is rooted in mystery. It requires us to put on a blindfold and be led by something greater than our intellect, and greater than our rational decision-making minds.
Granted, it’s not as if I abide by a doctrine of happy-go-lucky serendipity all the time. I get gobsmacked by the same complexities and trials that many people experience … in the realm of finances, creativity, love, and general purpose. I still shuffle my feet nervously in the midst of the unknown and find myself longing for guarantees and refuge when bad stuff happens. Because of this, it took two years to leave my marriage—I’d been waiting for a sign from the gods, some cast-iron assurance that everything would be okay. Ironically, that life rumbled around me in a matter of moments, not because I had all my ducks lined up and was ready to make that decisive move, but because the universe thought to whack me with a preliminary taste of what I knew, deep down, I wanted: the decimation of a tenuous blueprint in favor of uncertainty and a life authentically lived.
Uncertainty is a powerful cocktail when it’s paired with even the slightest inkling of a question: Is this all there is? Can there be a better life for me? Artists, scientists, and innovators routinely embrace uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox, because the open road is where new discoveries are made. Life becomes an adventure even in the most mundane of places, and purpose is beautifully distilled from the primal soup of chaos.
OM keeps us focused on the particularities of our experience without jumping into “It should be like this, and only this.” In the process, we discover something quite astounding—that kind of surrender is actually a key to our pleasure and ability to connect to others. When we aren’t holding so tightly to our expectations, we get to breathe the fresh air of reality and discover exactly who we are.
I am especially interested in working with South Asian couples and individuals who want to transform their relationship to sex, pleasure, connection, and desire. I’d love to eventually experience the healing of sexual shame on a large scale in our community, and to offer people tools and resources for addressing these issues within a safe, contained environment. When we begin to extricate sex from the prevailing culture of fear, vigilance, and privacy it’s encased within, I believe that we will also extricate ourselves from the prisons that have held us captive for too long.
Nirmala Nataraj is a freelance writer and a coach who teaches orgasmic meditation. It’s her mission to help people (especially bicultural South Asians) expand their capacity to know and be in alignment with their deepest desires, and to heal wounds around intimacy and sexuality. To learn more, visit www.sacredfirecoaching.com or email Nirmala at [email protected]