Yesterday, I got to have a conversation with my friend Emily about what we do at Writing Ourselves Whole. Emily is a seminary student, and wanted to talk some about the interweave of survival, desire, and spirituality. It was a very interesting hour and a half! What does spirituality have to do with writing about sex (or writing about anything), particularly for sexual trauma survivors?
My definition of the erotic is quite expansive, thanks to Audre Lorde. In her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” she writes, “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling […] a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Over the years, I have come to describe the erotic, as Lorde does: embodied and “creative energy empowered.”
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, writes about this idea of “flow,” that state of being in which one is wholly absorbed in an activity or situation. Mindful creative engagement (such as a freewriting practice) connects us to our flow, to that place where we are fully engaged in what we’re doing, where we’re open to new ideas and we trust our instincts, all of which are markers of transformative practice.
Flow is an experience of embodied and creative energy empowered; when we are in flow, we are in touch with our erotic selves – by which I mean our wholly creative, embodied, and intuitive selves. What I encourage, particularly in sexual assault survivors writing groups, is that writers practice listening to the pull of their own writing, that they practice trusting their intuition and creative instincts, in order to rebuild the frayed relationship with the core of themselves, with the intuition that we both needed to listen to and needed to ignore if we wanted to survive.
Survival, is, of course, a deeply creative act — particularly active survival, when we are just trying to stay alive and as whole as possible under the onslaught of someone’s violence. But when we are actively surviving trauma, we are not able to attend fully to our instincts or our embodied creative selves: we armor up, we put parts of ourselves away, we shut down internal access to our bodies, we work to forget rather than know, we try to make very little of ourselves available for hurting. We, metaphorically and sometimes literally, roll ourselves into a ball like the pillbug, trying to protect as much of our soft stuff as we can. The process of healing is the process of releasing ourselves wholly back into the world, unrolling, exposing our soft parts again, trusting that we can do so and will not die. This process can take years — for me, it’s taken twenty, and I’m certainly not done yet, I hope. Writing practice has been my steady companion while I’ve worked to unfurling; and as I type these words now, I see a matter-of-fact difference: when I was first beginning to write as a way to heal, I took my notebook to a cafe and hunched down over it, writing as messily as possible, so that I could hide myself and my words. Now I sit straight up in front of a computer, typing words that anyone could read if they looked over my shoulder. It’s no little miracle, this transformation, the possibility of this opening and openness, is what is true.
For me, what is spiritual is what is deeply rooted in my erotic body: my connected body, my complicated and desiring body, my whole body. I do not experience a sense of connection with other until I am able to have a sense of connection within myself.
When I am engaged in any work or task in which my creative energy is embodied and empowered, I am able to open out to the possibility of connectedness with others — with nature, with people, with the whole messy mystery of the world. For me, spirituality is interwoven with the erotic — with the sense of deep desire to undo the isolation that was necessary for my survival and know and connect with all of myself, as well as the world and community around me.
It took a long time for me to even conceive of being connected to such a thing as flow; the very fact that I can imagine allowing most of myself to concentrate my consciousness on a task at hand (rather than keeping psychic watch and hyper-vigilant for any possible coming attack) is a mark of healing.
In that same essay, Audre Lorde also writes, “[O]nce we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.” During our experience of trauma, and in the immediate aftermath, many of us who are survivors expended a lot of energy trying to keep ourselves from feeling. I don’t know about you, but for me, there was no safety in joy, no safety in expansiveness. What was safe was held in, armored, tightly bound up. Through practices like freewriting, walking, dancing, I began to trust it when joy would creep into my skin — I began to trust that the joy would not be immediately taken away, or used against me. Over years, thousands of hours writing, and maybe millions of words in notebooks, I found myself able to trust the voice of my erotic self — my empowered and embodied creative self. If I think of a spiritual self, that’s her. The words she has to offer me are hard won and pulled up straight for the psyche; I write them down and follow where she wants me to go. This is my spiritual practice. It’s the only one I really know.