When I was young, I dreamed of meeting a woman in a small, secluded room cut off from the rest of the world, someplace where my acts had no consequences. She wasn’t necessarily someone I knew; our lives didn’t touch. She had a certain look — auburn hair that just touched her shoulders; deep brown eyes; small, firm breasts with perfect pink nipples — and she performed particular acts I had always dreamed of: sliding down my torso to take me in her mouth as she eyed me coyly; slinging her legs over my shoulders as I entered her. She wanted whatever I wanted, and was deeply satisfied by what we did, satisfied as she had never been. She thought I was the greatest lover in the world.
As the years passed, I began to suspect that this room didn’t exist. There is no such thing as an act without consequences, and the room where a woman makes love — at least the women I have known — is at the heart of the vast mansion that is her life, where all the rooms connect.
Yet men are persistent, our dreams precious to us, so I continued to inhabit that room on occasion. Sex was an act there, an act that took place. It was primarily, though not solely, genital: if the genitals weren’t involved, it didn’t happen. At some level (one I didn’t often consider), everything in that room existed to give me an erection; if the erection didn’t happen, the party was over. Sex in that room was a drama, a performance that could be measured against past performances or imagined future ones: the erection should be this hard; the act should last this long; the orgasm should be this strong.
As I got older, things began to change. This is not a subject that often gets raised in the locker room, but one hears whispers in sex manuals and magazine articles about lost or diminished erections, longer periods between erections, orgasms diminishing in force. The already small room began to shrink, and took on the appearance of a mausoleum. Sometimes it could be revitalized by a new partner, but then that partner had to be replaced, and that partner. . . .
In psychological terms, what I have been describing is the room of the ego. Buddhists call it the place of monkey mind. Its walls, which appear constructed of reinforced concrete, are actually made of tissue paper; one can step through them at any time. Just looking at them hard enough makes them disappear. When that happens, you find yourself in a vast, empty space. It is frightening, but also liberating. A younger man is not likely to have the courage to enter that space, but an older man, who finds his already small room shrinking even more, just might.
The best way to step into that space, I found, was the way women had been urging on me all along: through my emotions. The realm of feeling was a vast and varied landscape that I had barely explored. When I was young, my libido, my dream of the small room — my strictly sexual energy — had been strong enough to overcome any emotion, and I had used sex to avoid or to repress emotion. But as I got older, my moods began to interfere more and more with my erections. This seemed a sad thing — my body was failing me — but it was also, I realized, an opportunity to explore the rich world of feeling that I had been neglecting. The energy I had tied up in my emotions was my sexuality. I needed to focus on my emotions to connect with it. That didn’t mean I had to feel tenderness in order to make love, but that I had to know what I was feeling, and act out of that. The diminishment of my sexual feeling was not a shrinking room, but an invitation to step out of that room into a much larger place: the vast, empty spaces of the heart.
In these vast spaces, sex is not an act that takes place; it is a power, a force that is with us all the time. It is not strictly genital, but involves the whole body, and the mind, heart, and spirit. It is not so dependent on how one’s partner looks, or on specific acts. Rather, it involves a much more subtle connection, which does seem to be physical, but beneath the level of words. It might involve physical contact and a mingling of energies, but is not necessarily harmonious; male and female energies often meet with a loud crack. It might emerge during deep conversations — even arguments — when a couple is passionately involved in what they are saying. It is present when they take a walk together, or watch the clouds in the winter sky, or listen to music, or have a drink in the evening.
This power also — lest it sound too tame — takes the form of hard hugs and playful ones, long, luxurious embraces of bare bodies, the caress of fingertips on skin, hands that knead the flesh; it inspires mild, affectionate kisses and wet, fierce ones, and can proceed from there to a whole host of delightful and inventive maneuvers, including the well-known act of sexual intercourse. It can be tender or violent, with assorted scratches, slaps, and bites, and it often involves uproarious laughter. It might lead to orgasm on the part of one or both partners, or might not. It might be accomplished in a matter of moments, or go on for hours. Most profoundly, it is an act of opening up to one another, a sharing of energies. It doesn’t ask you to be a certain way: it shows you how you are.
My dreams often come in clusters, as if, on some subconscious level, I am working over a particular question. Recently, within a single week, I had three dreams about sex, and they summed up much of what I’ve learned about the subject in the past few years.
In the third dream, the last of the series, I was in a bordello. The place was hardly opulent — more like a bathhouse operated by female attendants — but sex was taking place all around me. Aware of the threat to my health, I wasn’t participating, just watching. Yet I was tempted, and thought I might give in. It was this ambivalence that made the place exciting.
Into this establishment — much to my surprise, and somewhat to my embarrassment — walked my men’s group: they had come to rescue me because they didn’t want me to get AIDS. “I’m not in any danger,” I protested as they dragged me out. “You can’t catch anything from watching.” One of them stopped, turned to me, and said, “We want you to be above even the suspicion of catching AIDS.”
Illicit sex has always held a special attraction for me. Some version of that bordello has been appearing in my dreams for years. I have gradually become aware that such sex has little to do with physical needs, and much to do with emotional ones. (Much of what I used to consider physical I now think of as emotional. Horniness, I’m convinced, is 99 percent loneliness.) Such sex involves a wild need to break down barriers and violate taboos, an urge that your wife or legitimate lover can do nothing to satisfy. Interestingly, though, I have found that this need can be satisfied by emotional connection with men; that the affirmations a wife can’t give you, precisely because she is your wife, can be given by other men. This has been the great discovery of the men’s movement.
I have no doubt that my men’s group would rescue me from a bordello, if it were necessary. But that dream was about the way male friendship can save a man from damaging relationships.
In the second dream I was masturbating. I had rather liberally oiled myself, and my penis, as if in a cartoon, kept changing sizes: it would grow long and lean, then shrink to short and thick, then become elastic, and not especially hard. Still I kept stroking away, thoroughly enjoying myself.
That dream seemed to be about the physical changes of midlife — the middle-aged penis becomes suddenly, comically unpredictable, like a cartoon penis (though its owner isn’t laughing). However your penis is, this dream seemed to say, is all right: you can still enjoy yourself. Behind that simple meaning was a larger one, which I felt strongly when I woke up: You can take care of yourself. You can give up the dream you’ve always had of finding someone who will give you an ideal sex life. That’s a young man’s dream. The real key to your sexual happiness lies in yourself.
But it was the first dream, the one that inaugurated the series, that was really spectacular. I was the age I am now — in my midforties — and in bed with two women, also my age, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly thirty years. One had been the most universally admired and sought-after girl in our social set when we were young. The other, whom I had always found just as pretty, had been perhaps the most aristocratic in the group. In my dream they were both now beautiful, mature women, quite ravishing.
The universally admired one was lying beneath me, naked, in my arms. We weren’t making love, but it was clear we would. The aristocratic one was kneeling behind me and kissing — with the abandon of a true aristocrat — my ass. When her friend left, she made it clear, not by words, but by bold gestures, that we were going to make love, too. The message of this dream was glaringly obvious: You have everything you ever wanted. All that you ever longed for, through a painfully lonely adolescence, you now have.
When I woke up I was immediately convinced that this dream was about my meditation practice. It is through sitting on a cushion for hours at a time that I have come to see that all wishes are alike. The wish to make love to the woman of your dreams is the same as the wish to get off the cushion and go have some fun is the same as the wish to write a great novel and become rich and famous is the same as the wish to scratch your nose. Any of these wishes can become a deep, painful yearning. Sometimes you think that if you can’t scratch your nose, you’ll die. Yet if you satisfy one wish (go ahead; scratch your nose), another immediately appears in its place (your ear itches).
When you sit on the cushion and stare at your Yearning, you have put yourself in a position where there is nothing you can do to satisfy it. You realize that, in a deeper sense, there never is. You begin to experience the Yearning itself. You feel its energy, the very energy that powers the universe. You feel it as pleasurable. As William Blake once said in a great statement, energy is eternal delight. Once you have learned to enjoy it for itself, you can share it with someone — that’s what sex really is; sharing that energy — but you won’t have to. Most of us have touched that energy only through sexual connection, so we think that’s the only place it’s available, but it isn’t. It is endlessly available, wherever you are. You don’t have to seek it out. You don’t need another person. You have everything you need, everything you ever wanted.