Sexual Abuse: Causes and Cures in Religious and the Usual Life | Mark Whitwell
“The Source and Seen are One, therefore the ordinary seen condition of reality is full and sufficient. God is not absent from its creation.” | Mark Whitwell
I recently saw the U.S. director Robert Greene’s new film Procession, which tells the story of six men who suffered abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church in America. Honest, experimental, and heart-breaking, the film represents their search for emotional healing. Using a drama therapist, we get to see each of the men devise and then re-enact the scene of their abuse. By publicly revealing their most private hurt, Greene’s film raises serious questions about sex, hierarchy, and celibacy within religious life.
I was deeply moved watching Tom Viviano, who was abused in 1967 as a 10-year-old boy, talk about his pain. Holding back tears, he described how difficult it was to accept that an event from grade school continued to restrict him so heavily. Asked why he wanted to appear in the film, he said: “I want to do this for children and for anyone who has dealt with this, so they know they have someone in their corner.”
By providing a voice for those like Tom who have been hurt, Greene’s film becomes a song of solidarity for victims everywhere. And Procession reminds us that there are many, many people who have been hurt. In the United States alone, since the 1980s, more than 17,000 complaints have been filed against priests in Catholic dioceses. And, of course, the problem is not isolated to America. Most countries in the world with Catholic parishes have their own, ongoing inquiries into rampant sexual abuse.
Procession ends, however, without attempting to explain what the underlying cause of sexual abuse in religious community is. And as the credits roll, we are left with little insight into why these dreadful events happened. Yet without knowing the ‘why,’ we can hardly move forward as a culture and redeem our religious traditions.
“Christians need Yoga for Yoga links the mind to the Heart, allowing the mind to be free.” | Mark Whitwell
The Denial of Sex in Religious Life
I have been earnestly saying for years that celibacy is the root cause of sexual dysfunction in religious life. And increasingly, the practice is being placed under cultural scrutiny. A few years ago, a major report was released that brought together the findings of more than 26 royal commissions and other investigations into abuse within Catholic Churches in the UK, Ireland, Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia over the past three decades. The report discovered that mandatory celibacy was and remains, “the major precipitating risk factor for child sexual abuse.”
The denial of sex is the denial of life at its most basic level. We, and all of life, were all literally created through sex. It is the most powerful force in Mother Nature. You could say that God is sex and sex is God’s method on earth. When a person represses that natural force by will-of-mind, it invariably comes out as aberration and illness. Just as holding your breath soon causes it to come out as a gasp, so repressing sex causes it to explode in outburts of abuse. Yet, the madness of patriarchal religion has convinced the world that a life of God-realization lies beyond sex.
Clearly, the beautiful ideals of Christian culture such as love, justice, and compassion are not being realised through the suppression of sex. In fact, the opposite is true. Sincere religious men have had their sex taken off them, thus turning them into abusers. The priesthood with all its social power has then proposed to the world that sex is something less than sacred.
“Yoga is relationship.” | Mark Whitwell
Moving Beyond Celibacy
How can we move beyond celibacy as a faulty and dangerous doctrine? What will it take to bring intimate connection into the heart of our religious lives?
We have to acknowledge that the problem of celibacy cannot be isolated from the belief system of the church as a whole. Indeed, the fundamental presumption of patriarchal religious orthodoxy is the dualistic proposal that God is absent from the ordinary, tangible conditions of the world. The usual religious life is a fearful search for a God that is imagined to be elsewhere-the action of trying to re-link which is the root meaning of the word religio. The principle method given to re-link with God is to step back from all ordinary conditions, including sex. The teaching of the Catholic clergy, for example, is that you get to God by dropping the world, removing yourself from women, going to the monastery, and devoting yourself to what is ‘higher.’ Celibacy is therefore a symptom of this larger movement of dissociation.
This movement away from relationship is of course a movement that is not isolated to Catholicism. It is the problem of civilization itself. In the eastern religions of Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, as well as in many schools of yoga, the dualism that separates god from sex, spirit from matter, is the central premise. Underpinning Patanjali Yoga Sutra, for example, is the uncompromising dualism of Samkhya philosophy which proposes that you get to Purusha (the absolute condition of Consciousness or God) by conquering and transcending Prakriti: the tangible world, the body, sex. This is why all patriarchal religious communities have a serious problem with sexual abuse. Sex is either repressed as part of a search for God or considered to be fundamentally less than sacred and so engaged in without one’s full humanity.
In my lifetime, I would like to purify Sex in all religious traditions, so their participants are no longer in conflict with their born experience. I want religious people to know that participation in sex is participation in God. And I would like the same for those traditions who don’t have the God concept but who do practice reverence for Life, the absolute condition of Life. No one need be in conflict with any naturally occurring phenomena of Life, but should be free to participate in them with absolute positive connection to everything.
“Intimacy with all ordinary conditions is the anciently given method of religious life. Not renunciation, not celibacy.” | Mark Whitwell
The Legacy of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya
The practical means to live a sex-positive religious life comes down to us today through the life of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989), a man known as the ‘father of modern Yoga.’ He was the teacher to several of the main figures of 20th century Yoga, such as B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and his son T.K.V. Desikachar. He was a deep scholar of the religious traditions of humanity, an expert in the Vedantic traditions of India, and a practitioner of tantric Hatha Yoga.
Krishnamacharya’s sincere view, based upon his years of scholarship, was that a life of intimate connection (not renunciation) was the principle of a full religious life. Krishnamacharya brought forth this understanding from his own great teacher, Ramanuja acharya of the tenth century, the second of the three great Vedantic Acharyas, who affirmed that Yoga was to be practiced for non-dual realisation and realised only in family life — perhaps a polite way of saying sexual polarity.
“Inhale receive God. Pause and be with God. Exhale give yourself to God. Pause and you are given to God.” T. Krishnamacharya.
Rather than stepping back from all ordinary conditions, dissociating from the body and its needs, these great scholars emphatically affirmed that Sex is the heart’s activity, caused and realised through the utter union of male and female (whether in same-sex or opposite sex intimacy).
Krishnamacharya taught Yoga as heart abiding, as participation in the union of opposites. When we embrace all opposites in our own form we feel the source of all opposites: the hridaya heart, the first cell of life that appeared when spirit took form in your own case through the sexual union of your parents.
The union of opposites within enables the union of opposites without. Each person’s intimate connection to their own body and breath facilitated a deep and abiding intimacy with their special partner. Krishnamacharya would say that “Yoga is relationship.” And that intimate connection to body, breath, and relationship is necessary for God-realization.
Far from being exclusive to the religious traditions of India, Krishnamacharya wanted Yoga to enter the world’s religious cultures. “Christians need Yoga. Muslims need Yoga. Atheists need Yoga,” he would say. Besotted intimacy with all ordinary conditions, including sexuality if it arises, is the heart of a devotional life. This is the turn that we need to make in our churches and temples around the world.
Bringing Sex to our Understanding of God
In my life as a Yoga teacher, I have found that when people who have been brought up within religious doctrine discover their breath through right asana practice, they quickly feel the implications of it for their religious life. They discover that spirit is not an abstraction. They find that God is in the breath, the body, the heart, and in all ordinary relationships.
For this reason, we need to urgently put a practice of intimate connection into the world of orthodox religion. The way to truly heal and move beyond the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and other institutions, is to replace the dark patterning of patriarchy with the indigenous physical wisdom technology of Yoga. Sexual abuse will end when God is brought to our understanding of Sex and Sex to our understanding of God. Then true religious life begins.
Mark Whitwell a Yogi and world teacher whose simple mission is to bring the principles of practice that came through the ‘teacher of the teachers’ Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) into the mainstream of public life. He has taught Yoga around the world since 1975 and is a direct student of TKV Desikachar (1938–2016) with whom he enjoyed a relationship with for more than twenty years.
He is the author of four books including the beloved Yoga of Heart (2004), Hridayasutra (2004), The Promise (2016), and most recently God and Sex: Now We Get Both (2019). Mark was also the editor and contributor to his teacher T.K.V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga (1995), a text that is celebrated on teacher trainings around the world as the “bible of modern Yoga.” Mark is the founder of the Heart of Yoga foundation and the Heart of Yoga Peace Project. He is the founder of the Heart of Yoga Online Studio. He lives between Fiji and New Zealand where he continues to write, teach, and speak.