Sex Transports One in 12 into Mystical State

Illustration by Justine Tot Tatarsky

Pacific Sun | June 8, 2004
The line that divides sexuality from spirituality is thin--if it exists at all. So says Corte Madera developmental psychologist Jenny Wade, who claims that for a significant proportion of the population mystical experiences happen in the bedroom every day. Wade, who specializes in studying naturally occurring altered states of consciousness, recently completed a study concluding that as many as one in every eight to 12 adults "can suddenly, without any warning or preparation, find themselves in otherworldly realms when making love as though God's lightning bolt of grace had illuminated the bedroom, transforming everything." Following an unexpected experience of her own, she wanted to find out whether others also may have "stumbled into extraordinary experiences during sex."

Wade conducted extensive interviews with people who said they'd had unusual experiences in the course of making love when they were not drinking, using drugs or practicing techniques like Tantric yoga to induce an altered state during sex. The 91 subjects in her sample were normal adults, most of them reared in traditional Judeo-Christian homes, none with special training or knowledge of esoteric erotic arts. Wade says the experiences described by her subjects are indistinguishable from descriptions of mystical states achieved by shamans and spiritual adepts in contemplative Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"People need to know about these incidents because lovers, unlike spiritual seekers, are not trying to bring them about, and they are not prepared for the consequences, which are usually positive but can also be devastating," Wade says. "I call the spontaneous altered states that occur during lovemaking transcendent sex because people seem to go beyond, or transcend, the boundaries of the natural world and the normal limitations of self. They find themselves catapulted into a different reality, or, if they remain in the recognizable here-and-now, are participating in events that are normally impossible, such as floating out of their bodies or communicating directly and wordlessly with the minds of animals, for instance. These happenings are so counter to normal experience that the vast majority in my study viewed them as having a spiritual origin. They believed they had tapped into divine forces. Most reported very positive personal transformation subsequently, very similar to the changes reported by near-death experiencers."

Kenneth Ring, Ph.D., of Kentfield, a renowned investigator of the near-death experience, gives Wade's research high marks. "Jenny Wade is recognized as being one of the top researchers in the field of transpersonal psychology, and indeed teaches a course on research methodology at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology," says Ring, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut, and author of Heading Toward Omega and Lessons from the Light. "Her work for her book, Transcendent Sex, is a model of careful and thorough qualitative research, and her findings, though presented in a way to engage the educated reader, are based on solid and impressive scholarship."

I interviewed Wade in San Rafael the day before she left on tour for her new book, Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil. Arriving a few minutes early, I realized with some trepidation that I was about to do something a gentleman isn't supposed to: ask a lady to tell a virtual stranger about her sex life. Journalism has its perks.

o o o o

In your book you say you decided to research this subject following an experience in bed that changed your life. What exactly happened?

I was making love with a partner I'd been with for about six months or so when the bedroom I was in began dissolving. I watched in amazement as the right-angled white walls and ceiling of the familiar room transformed into those of a round pink chamber with a silver Greek key border near the ceiling. Was this just some weird fantasy or daydream? Suddenly I was no longer in any room with my lover at all, no longer sheltered in his house from the snow blanketing the wintry Northeast but standing on the sun-bright shores of a sandy beach, squinting at the glittering waves...rushing toward me. I was surrounded by vivid sea creatures, fish and octopi. Bemused, I wondered if I had somehow been swept into the water from the beach, but gradually I realized the sea creatures were not real, but images...Images painted in the unmistakable style of frescoes from the ancient civilization of Crete, a culture about which I knew nothing. It didn't matter. I was filled with the most exquisite rapture and bliss I had ever experienced.

Eventually I found myself back in the familiar bedroom, still making love. My lover had apparently noticed nothing. Had I lost my mind? How long had I been "away"? I had never slipped out of reality before. I didn't say anything about it, rather ashamed to let my lover know I had strayed so far from his attentions and feeling pretty crazy about it to boot. But I never forgot it either. On other occasions during sex, more strange things happened. Always I was filled with ecstasies a thousand times larger and more compelling than even the most intense orgasm. One day, I couldn't contain it any more and began laughing uncontrollably. I had gone into the "no-thingness of nirvana," which seemed exquisitely funny, absurd and perfectly natural all at the same time. When I could speak, I had to tell my lover what had happened.

He looked at me oddly, and then confessed that he also, after a lifetime of sex, had been having some strange things happen when he was in bed with me. But his experiences were nothing like mine. We both had been afraid we were losing our minds, but if so, it was the most glorious experience in all the world, one that opened each of us to ecstatic and spiritual realms we had never dreamed existed.

Was nirvana your interpretation at the time of your experience? Do you mean that as a metaphor, or were you already familiar with spiritual practices and non-ordinary states of consciousness?

I knew what nirvana was from my research into different spiritual practices, and one of the reasons I was laughing was because I was amused that I had had a Buddhist experience when most of my spiritual practice comes out of the Christian contemplative tradition. I was as much surprised by that as anything else. I'm not a spiritual adept, and I'm certainly not a love goddess. I was brought up in a conservative Methodist and Southern Baptist home. And, frankly, I don't consider myself a particularly gifted or sophisticated lover.

How did you get from your experience to launching a research project?

Since I'd had more than one experience, and my lover's experiences were nothing like mine, I was mildly curious. But when I was asked to write a chapter for an anthology on direct spiritual realization that was both scholarly yet coming from personal experience, I proposed doing a chapter on sexual encounters. I knew there was a vast literature about altered states of consciousness, and I was sure I would find plenty of data for my article. Abraham Maslow had talked about such events in his work on creativity and self-actualization, and every large study on spirituality had turned up sex, and every large study on sex had turned up spirituality.

When the deadline approached, however, I ransacked the literature without any luck. All the researchers said these things happen, but nobody said what "these things" were really like. I quickly scavenged my acquaintances to come up with enough material for the article and was surprised when there was virtually no overlap across any of the experiences. That was what got me really curious, and then I determined to start studying this in a serious way.

Sex and God are obviously emotionally charged topics. How did you go about finding research subjects? And what criteria did you use to distinguish what you call "transcendent" sex from the most intense "regular" sex?

At first I tried to find people through my colleagues in altered-state research, many of whom have collected a vast number of records in their files. No luck. So I put the word out to all my friends and professional acquaintances, and began recruiting by word of mouth and referral everywhere I was lecturing or presenting.

I kept the criteria deliberately vague, asking for people to talk with me who had experienced a "transcendent, mystical, non-ordinary or altered state" during sex when not using drugs or practicing Tantra or Taoist sex or other erotic arts designed to bring about an altered state. I wanted to find people whose experiences were spontaneous and unexpected. I learned quickly that most people who had had one knew it, even though they weren't sure what they had experienced met my criteria. If someone even said, "I'm not sure this is what you're looking for but..." they usually had. In all the time I was recruiting only one person's experience out of 92 who came forward did not fit my criteria.

My criteria, which I never revealed, were the clinical standards commonly used in the medical and psychological professions: orientation to consensus time, space, and person or agency [known as the "three spheres of reality"]. These are the markers used, for instance, in an emergency room to determine whether someone has normally functioning mental processes: Do they know where they are and what day it is [are oriented in the here and now]? Do they have a normal sense of self and other, and the rules governing the relationships among animate and inanimate objects? Change in any one of these dimensions is considered an altered state of consciousness--meaning non-ordinary or out of the normal range in the culture.

You must have had some assumptions about transcendent sex at the beginning. Did your findings challenge those assumptions in any way?

I set out to discover the range of sexual spiritual experiences, in other words the "variety of sexual religious experiences." What kinds were possible? How did they affect people, especially since the people who had these experiences did not have a readymade framework to understand them? What did they think was happening? I had a lot of "common sense" assumptions: that perhaps women would have more or different transcendent experiences than men because their arousal curve is different, as is the ability to have multiple orgasms; that perhaps certain techniques might bring about the states; that the states might be related to orgasm in some way; that people who were trusting and open and in relationships where they felt psychologically safe would be more inclined to have such experiences; and that people who were adept at experiencing altered states because of a meditation or contemplative practice might have more experiences and that their experiences would match the kinds they achieved in their practice. My findings completely confounded every single one of these assumptions.

So transcendent sex simply "happens" regardless of circumstances, readiness or beliefs?

That's right, and in that sense it's exactly like direct spiritual experiences that happen to people outside of established religious traditions and practices. In all the institutionalized religions, the pleasurable aspects of sex gradually changed from a celebration of divine forces to a distraction from the spiritual path--and from a distraction to a hazard. For some, it was only a small step from a hazard to a sin. But no matter how hard societies tried to stamp it out, the divine play of sex and Spirit didn't disappear. It was just driven underground. Transcendent sex has always been a well-kept secret, but like any secret, it leaks out.

Is it something that can be practiced, like hitting golf balls at a driving range?

There are many practices people can use to facilitate their ability to have transcendent sex, and I talk about a lot of them in my book. But it's important to remember that the capability to have transcendent sex is an innate human potential, which most people in clan and tribal societies enjoy as a natural way of life because they were never taught not to enjoy their bodies or to live in their heads so exclusively as most people in "civilized" societies. People can practice the techniques mentioned in my book or can take Tantric or other workshops, but most of the people I talked to were reluctant to try to regulate their sex lives, preferring the spontaneity. Focusing too much on the goal is counterproductive in transcendent sex, just as it is in meditation, however you go about it.

Opening up to the possibility, staying present and focused without attachment to any particular outcome--especially including orgasm--is one of the first steps. Letting go and being willing to fall into whatever arises, getting lost in the moment. Of course, sometimes people don't even have to do that much: They can be carried away on the wings of Spirit even before they know what is happening to them.

It sounds like transcendent sex is what psychologist Abraham Maslow called a "peak experience," only in the bedroom.

Yes. Interestingly, Maslow was surprised when he talked to his early respondents to find out they had peak experiences in bed quite often, in fact probably more often than any other place. They weren't restricted to "religious" settings, nature or being in the presence of great art, which was what he had originally anticipated. Marghanita Laski's classic study Ecstasy showed that by far more people experienced transcendent events in the sack than anywhere else.

You write that many of your subjects' understanding of reality was "forever altered" by their experiences. That's a big claim.

In my study, atheists and agnostics whose world-views didn't include nonmaterial events or explanations became believers. People brought up in one faith changed their religion. Scientists who disbelieved in any supernatural phenomena changed their beliefs about the world. A physician who described himself as a pragmatic, hard-core materialist who dismissed spirituality as just so much wishful thinking and claptrap, said he only trusted what his senses or science could demonstrate was real. Then he had one of these experiences and said, "I knew there would be no scientific explanations. In some mysterious way, I was touched by God. I'm embarrassed, but mostly I consider myself the luckiest man alive."

An accomplished meditator and spiritual seeker said, "I spent three years in Africa studying, I read all these books, and I went to the East to get a conscious understanding of spirituality. But the impact of this sexual event was huge, the biggest. I know now there are these whole other realms that are barely explored by most of us."

Your research sample wasn't intended to be "representative" of the population as a whole. So what's your basis for your claim that perhaps one in every eight to 12 adults may have these experiences?

I was deliberately only recruiting people who had had the experiences I wanted to investigate; I didn't attempt to find the distribution or frequency of such experiences in a normal population. My speculation about how many people have had transformative sex is observational. When I recruited in speaking venues [which was most of the time], I usually had a head count of the audience, and I knew how many people volunteered. Usually more people than volunteer have had an experience, but I only counted volunteers. Only one in over 90 failed to meet the criteria, so those who volunteered were virtually all the people I was looking for.

But I also looked at other studies of spirituality and sexuality that published records containing the kind of material I was looking for, whether the researchers were looking for it or not. One large study showed a frequency of about one in eight people having a non-ordinary experience, so I'm prepared to say that reasonably probably one in every eight to 12 people will have such an experience at least once during life--and this still may be a conservative figure because up until now, nobody has been able to look at examples and say, "Oh, yes, I've had one of those."

You insist you're not an "advocate." You even write that, for many, transcendent sex "may wisely remain the road not taken." Why the caution?

First of all, just as contemplative practices that involve bodily austerities such as abstinence and asceticism are not favorable spiritual paths for some people, paths that employ the body--whether they involve dancing, the martial arts, sex or something else--are not for everyone.

But even more important is that these sexually evoked states can be more hazardous than others for a variety of reasons. An obvious danger is that people don't necessarily expect to be transported to a non-ordinary realm when they're making love, so most of the people I talked to were completely unprepared. They hadn't regarded lovemaking as a practice or a trigger for altered states, and some were destabilized by what happened to them, especially if it challenged their view of reality. At other times, the content of the experience can be quite disturbing: People saw demonic figures and other frightening imagery, left their bodies so suddenly they thought they were dying, or felt possessed.

But perhaps the most dangerous is that unlike many other altered states, these sexual ones involved another person, high emotion, and great physical and psychological vulnerability. We're all familiar with "crimes of passion" and the way they are considered in some way excusable in the "hot blood" of the moment owing to strong feelings of sexual love. We're also all too familiar with the way sex, power and spirituality has played out badly in the unequal relationships between spiritual leaders and members of their communities. The potential for an abuse of power when one partner is unusually open and susceptible because of a sexual engagement is great, especially during circumstances construed as spiritual. It is particularly wise to take precautions if you find yourself in a situation that may open to transcendent sex, especially if you are unsure of your partner. A number of these safeguards are presented in the book, along with the cautionary tales of what can happen to the unwary. Altered states should never be taken lightly, especially in a sexual relationship; people would do well to understand what may happen and how to take care of themselves.

I can hear people thinking, "Oh, great--another area where I fall short of the ideal.

The last thing I want to do is create another Olympics for sexual athletes or a new kind of sexual elitism. Transcendent sex is by no means the be-all and end-all of lovemaking. Having a transcendent experience in bed doesn't mean you are enlightened, or that your partner is "the one" or that the relationship is "true love." I think part of the glory of these experiences is that they are somewhat random: You never know when or where the lightning bolt of grace is going to strike. Spirit is just too broadcast for that.

E-mail Jenny Wade by logging on to

@sidehed:Varieties of transcendent sex

@sidebar:The 91 subjects of Wade's study reported a wide range of unusual events that occurred spontaneously when they went to bed with their partners just as they always had, including:

o Seeing visions

o Feeling as though they were transported to other locations

o Experiencing waves of heat, energy and light

o Participating directly in the animal and plant life of the planet and other natural forces

o Re-living what seemed to be past lives

o Being visited by gods and other nonmaterial teachers

o Being possessed by "spirits"

o Embodying extraordinary forces, such as speaking in tongues

o Dissolving into the "primordial Void," such as nirvana or samadhi

o Dissolving into God, or "the great I AM"

(The Pacific Sun illustrated the article with erotic "kamasutra" style drawings by Marin County artist Justine Tot Tatarsky.)

@sidehed:About the artist

@sidebar:Justine Tot Tatarsky designs her colorful images directly on tile, usually without pre-sketching on paper. She paints on glazes then fires the tiles at 2,000 degrees. Each design is repeated in small limited editions. The tiles come wood-framed or wood-backed for hanging, or can be installed directly. For more information and to see other designs, check her Web site:

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