Updated: Oct 26
When we speak of sexual energy, we naturally think of having sex. But sexual energy is larger than that. Perhaps libidinal energy or life-force are better terms. Others speak of psychosexual energy, joie-de-vivre, Élan vital, prana, the chi. Whatever term you prefer, we’re talking about the creative energy within all of us. It is an essential spiritual energy that only sometimes expresses itself sexually.
Libidinal energy is creative energy. It is erotic in the sense that erotic means life-giving. Libidinal energy is our life force. We feel it in our bodies, on a physiological level. It is a passion towards a person or task; it makes you feel alive. When libidinal energy flows through you, you feel very positive, invigorated, lifted above your circumstances, tingling with energy. Decisions become very clear. Colors seem more vivid.
Libidinal energy draws you, magnetizes you to someone or something. Getting in touch with it helps you unearth your potential and bring repressed passions into the conscious mind. It is the instinctual love of our essential life-force. It’s what you feel when you fall in love. It’s what you feel when you’re in a creative groove, highly focused on painting, or playing music, or writing a poem.
A seasoned spiritual director was talking with a young single minister about his sexuality. Among many other things, the spiritual director told the young man that he would fall in love many times over the years. His natural libidinal energy would magnetize him towards potential partners. He needed to learn how to deal with the intense feelings of being in love when they arose.
I so wish a wise spiritual guide had talked to me like that when I was in my late teens or early 20s. No one ever talked to me about sex other than a very uncomfortable (for both of us) brief lecture on biology from my father. No one taught me how to deal with powerful libidinal energies.
We are sexual beings. God made us that way. Yet the only message I got as a young Christian man was, “Sex is wonderful. Don’t do it! (Except with your lawfully wedded wife). And, by the way, you’re even better off unmarried. Oh, and just so you know, sex outside marriage is an unforgivable sin almost as bad as divorce.”
I was taught that sexuality was the great enemy of spirituality. When I preached abstinence from the pulpit, I failed to point out that in biblical times most people were placed in arranged marriages in their early teens and died in their early 40s. Instead, I substituted legalism – never be alone with a woman other than your wife. Never touch a woman. Be as separate as possible from women. Live like a cloistered monk, a strict Muslim, or Hasidic Jew. Indeed, the three great demons that would kill any ministry were said to be money, pride, and women. Women were to cover up, eschew attractiveness, yet turn into sultry seductresses for their husbands, fulfilling wild fantasies. All of this was taught in the name of purity. Instead of accountability, healing and restoration, there was condemnation and rejection.
No one told me that humans fall in love multiple times over the course of a lifetime and can choose how to direct that energy for good or for ill.
No one told me that humans of both biological sexes could live together and interact collectively in mutually fulfilling altruistic piety or that innocent friendships with people of the opposite sex were possible.
No one told me that we never get over those to whom we give our hearts, no matter how badly the relationship ends.
No one bothered to explain to me that being in a position of authority, like a pastor, could warp the passions and wills of those under authority.
No one ever told me that sexuality is a part of libidinal energy. Because our sexuality is both something we’re born with and something that develops in stages, it involves energies buried deep in the subconscious mind.
I grew up in a home with lax boundaries – family members walked around naked and walked into the bathroom when others were bathing. I grew up with powerful urges I did not know how to handle. Others grew up in homes where their bodies were shamed.
Hedonists maintain that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of life. We live in a hedonistic culture – if it feels good, do it. The extreme puritanical person reacts to hedonism by concluding that any physical pleasure leads to damnation. Both are wrong.
Sexual energy cannot simply be expressed without restraint, or we wind up in an immoral exploitative mess and create a heap of badly damaged people. Unbridled sexuality leads to serial divorces, adultery, psychologically bruised children, and STDs. Nor can sexual energy simply be repressed. It will always emerge sideways. Oppressed sexuality is the pathway of the fundamentalist, the puritan. It leads to judgementalism, Phariseeism, and the blatant hypocrisy of those big shot ministers caught with prostitutes.
We all have this life-force, this libidinal energy. It is unhealthy to just let it out without any guard rails. It is also unhealthy to suppress it. So, what do we do with our sexuality?
No one taught me how to sublimate, redirect, libidinal energy in healthy ways. I was unaware that that energy and passion can be poured into social justice, a work of art, or a piece of music. Watch the pure love flow from Yo Yo Ma with his cello.
Obviously, libidinal energy can be expressed romantically and sexually in loving healthy relationships. There are times and seasons when that isn’t possible or advisable, however. Libidinal energy can also be sublimated, redirected. Psychosexual energy can be refocused on non-sexual expressions of affection for others, on doing things for others to bring them joy. Libidinal energy can be channeled into things like working out, writing, playing sports, yoga, contemplative prayer, imaginative scripture reading, dancing, painting, playing or composing music, reading, meditation, sculpture, pottery, learning, cooking, designing, or any other form of creative thought.
How do you do that? Perhaps with the help of a wise spiritual guide, you get in touch with that essential life force, learn to welcome it into your conscious awareness, and then learn how to focus it in ways that are healthy, holy, life-giving, and freeing.