Monday, November 29, 2010

Gnostic BDSM

Though I’ve never heard the term used in our subculture, I think it’s safe to write that sub space is a “Gnostic experience.” For those looking for a definition of Gnosticism, this one is from Wikipedia: “Gnosis (from one of the Greek words for knowledge) is the spiritual knowledge of a saint or mystically enlightened human being. Within the cultures of the term's provenance (Byzantine and Hellenic) Gnosis was a knowledge or insight into the infinite, divine and uncreated in all and above all, rather than knowledge strictly into the finite, natural or material world. Gnosis is a transcendental as well as mature understanding. It indicates direct spiritual experiential knowledge and intuitive knowledge, mystic rather than that from rational or reasoned thinking. Gnosis itself is obtained through understanding at which one can arrive via inner experience or contemplation such as an internal epiphany of intuition and external epiphany such as the Theophany.” (from Wikipedia at

In other words, when in an altered state (sub space or top space) we experience in some way (through pain, bondage, surrender, etc.) the divine (i.e., the infinite, celestial, transcendent).

This is one of the frameworks, then, in which we can consider the role of spirituality in what it is that we do. Please note that it is only one framework, as it should be obvious that there are many ways to understand our BDSM experiences.

The world is replete with Gnostic religions, Buddhism being perhaps the most notable. Early Christianity, and many of the mystery cults of the Roman Empire, had strongly Gnostic practitioners. In fact Gnosticism was one of the earliest controversies in Christianity and was eventually considered a heresy and suppressed.

With the discovery (between the years 1947 and 1956), study and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there has been a resurgence of information about Gnosticism.

Now all of this might seem irrelevant to dungeon play but I believe that there are many reasons to explore what theology has to teach us concerning BDSM, even if we approach it from a non-religious viewpoint. Among them are: (1) an understanding of what happens when we enter subspace; (2) a greater recognition of the historical roots of BDSM activity as a spiritual practice; (3) a frank discussion about the role of power and of personal revelation; and (4) the dangers to our subculture that Gnosticism can present.

What Happens When We Enter Sub Space

My newest book, More from the Master, has concluding chapters about the psychological phenomenon that we call sub space, so I will refer you to that book for a more detailed explanation than what I can give you in this blog. Let me remind the tops reading this that top space is a similar, if less discussed, experience.

Simply put, our brain wave activity slows from beta (the normal, awakened state) to alpha and eventually to theta (a dream-like state of reverie). Numerous activities can induce these states, even one as simple as going to sleep. As most of us know, the stress of a flogging or spanking does the same, as do many of the other fetishes that we enjoy.

More easily entering these states can be accomplished with practice and attention to the skills that induce or enhance the experience, such as using breathing and relaxation techniques. Other environmental and relational factors contribute to successful "trip" as well.

That is why playing with a trusted friend or having the right kind of music in the dungeon are the kind of factors that need to be looked at when negotiating a scene. Learning, knowing and using religious practices can also be part of a successful scene. There is, for instance, something to be said for the use of Gregorian chant in the dungeon.

The Historical Roots of BDSM Activity

In general the ancient mystery cults of the West, i.e., Dionysianism, Mithraism, Eleusinianism, were substantially eradicated when the Roman Empire was Christianized. Much of this had to do with the burning of manuscripts but the fact that only the initiated were allowed knowledge of these cults was certainly another contributing factor. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to know exactly what those secret rites entailed.

On the other hand, there are more than several primitive cultures whose initiatory rites are well documented such as those of Native Americans and aboriginal tribes of Africa and the Pacific Islands. Many of these cultures used pain, deprivation and vision quests to induce mystic experiences into the adolescents who were entering adulthood in their tribes. Such activities, I believe, have strong similarities to what happens in an SM scene.

Understanding shamanistic practices, then, could well endow our play with another venue for success.

The Role of Power and Personal Revelation

Mysticism, of course, has always held a high place in Judeo-Christian practice, there being high regard for contemplatives, saints, and aesthetes in many of the sects that derive from this tradition. The same, of course, can be said of Eastern practices. Nevertheless, Gnostic experience is very often closely guarded, as many religions are skeptical and fearful of "private revelation." I believe that this is the result of the power that priests, and ministers, rabbis and imams gain by being "protectors" of the faith. Those who challenge their authority are often labeled heretics, unbalanced or fanatical.

That leads to a consideration of the place of private revelation within the context of our subculture. That sounds high-falutin’ until we put in into the context of an ego inflated by mystical experience.

The Dangers of Gnosticism

That's not to say that there isn't a place for caution in Gnostic practice. After all, we have myriad examples of ideology that becomes destructive. One only need look at the criminal results of Marxism and Nazism to see that discernment of the message, any message, is a critical part of a helpful process towards enlightenment, whatever that term might mean to the seeker.

Therefore it behooves us to discern the value of the lessons we gain in the dungeon, lest we go off "half-cocked" and deluded by the inflated self-images bestowed upon those who have experienced the divine within themselves.

I would refer you to the chapter entitled “True Spirituality” in my book, Philosophy in the Dungeon:
“What we are left with, then, is to find and maintain balance, to live in such a way as to grow in wisdom and knowledge while living a life based on virtue, which directs our actions towards ourselves, others, and our environment. It is more than simply doing good; it is a faithfulness to the self which we know to be authentic.”

Next week: Discernment. Have a great week. Jack

Monday, November 22, 2010

Spirituality in the Dungeon

When 21-year-old Eddie came to us in 2001 he was greatly conflicted between his evangelical background and his homosexuality and it seemed right for Patrick and me to share our experiences with him. Since Patrick had completed Baptist seminary and I have both attended Catholic seminary and am an ordained Pentecostal minister we had much in common with him in that regard.

As part of the sharing process I began writing a short and never-completed biography, the result of which was a unique view into my past. As it happened, the real value in the bio was that I stepped back to look at myself. What did I discover?

My life, when viewed rather casually, may seem to some quite disjointed, filled as it is with a wide variety of jobs, a painful divorce, multiple short-lived relationships, and a poor economic record. My parents always wondered if I would "ever settle down." To his dying day (literally) my Dad despaired of my ever succeeding, though that is another topic and I won't go there today.

Of all the self-revelation that the bio afforded me, the strongest was the realization that the single-most common thread in my life was my personal search to "know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with him in the next." Time and again my actions strongly indicated a desire for a rich and holy spiritual life, no matter the cost or the meaning of such a search.

It continues even now, when the outward appearances of my lifestyle might indicate flesh, not spirit.

Last week's blog about change was a prelude to the themes I want to pursue today and in the coming weeks. In one sense there has been no change, in that my quest for the sacred continues. In another sense that quest is full of change, as I take new directions, have new ideas, try new things, and come to new and (I hope) deeper conclusions.

One of the more obvious changes in our house is the renovation and expansion of my dungeon. In doing that work, I had to move many boxes of "old stuff" and decide what I could toss and what ought to be kept. So it was that I pulled an old note book off a shelf and found two pages of entries about "The Regiment."

In 1991 and ‘92, I corresponded with Larry and Mike about the creation of a men's-only sex club focused on the worship of the Hindu god Shiva. It was to be a unique combination of military, monastic, and sexual themes. The notebook documents that "On November 6th, 1992, Larry performed the first Regiment Dedication making [me] a pledge. Mike was witness." The next day Larry initiated me into the Brotherhood.

Please fast forward to this year. From the end of my political campaign in early February until October I plunged into writing my first novel, a story that centers around "The Alliance," a clandestine cult of men and women who worship Dionysos in 20th-century America.

Dionysos, better known as the Roman god Bacchus, was one of the sons of Zeus and the Greek god of wine, orgies, ecstasy, and darkness. Shiva, coincidentally, is the equivalent of Dionysos in the Hindu pantheon. So, across nearly two decades, a thread is connected.

The writing itself was transformative for me as it forced me to more deeply research the archaeological records about this cult, which was banned by the Roman Senate in 186 B.C.E. I created fictional initiation rites, a hierarchy, and Dionysian celebrations. In short, this cult took up a life of its own in my writing. Even more importantly, it has taken up residence in my psyche. Such is the transformative process involved in a writer's work.

What does all this have to do with kink? A great deal, I believe. On one level, it seems to me that Dionysian initiations were in part sadomasochistic, as the famed mural in the House of the Mysteries in Pompeii illustrates a female initiate being flogged. (Please note that this interpretation is debated by some authorities.)

Additionally, though we don't often admit it, there is a strong spiritual content to what it is that we do, including a significant number of "players" who are pagan in belief and both Dionysian and Gnostic in their practice. For more information on the subject I will refer you to my book Philosophy in the Dungeon.

Look, too, to the increasing numbers of seminars about "BDSM Spirituality."

Just as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom reminds us that "Sex and Politics make strange bedfellows," so do Sex and Religion, at least in Western thought. Most don't realize that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are religions that effectively eliminated the fertility-based religions of the Mediterranean region.

The first draft of the novel may be done, but not the first draft of my life. Is there a Regiment or an Alliance in my future? How does this quest impact my teaching, relationships, and BDSM practice? Where is the line between a fictional work and life lived in 21-st century Chicago?

How does embracing these ideas transform the nature and quality of my life, affect my teaching and writing, or influence my decisions? Where does the thread lead and what will following it reveal?

These are not rhetorical questions. They are the sum and substance of living, if one lives what was called in seminary "The Examined Life." I invite you to come with me on this journey and add your comments below. After all, we're all on this planet together, and none of us really knows where those threads lead.

Have a great week. Jack

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Seasons of One’s Life

As the leaves fall off the trees and the garden plants turn yellow and die, there are plenty of reasons to think of change. Father Alliot always said that the more things change the more they stay the same. Of course he said it in French.

We often forget that change is natural, our only constant. It is irresistible, as predictable as dawn following the night and night following day. For us there is change like the sun rise, the good things that come after a stretch of pain, depression or angst. There is the opposite as well, those wonder days that somehow crash into confusion, doubt, and trouble.

“You have to take the good with the bad,” Mom used to say. Taking, of course, isn’t accepting or liking. Taking it is living through it, though in some rare cases even living through it isn’t an option, since each of us is going to die sometime. The reality is that most change is what it is and we survive, transformed, different, for better or for worse.

It is always a season of change, whether of growth or decline, of life or death, of pleasantry or misery. Sometimes we can’t help but see it; at others it is nearly imperceptible.

My year and a half hiatus from writing this column was sparked by change. It began with a marked decline in book sales and speaking engagements, punctuated by a reduction in teaching income from the college where I have worked for the last 17 years. As many of you know, a desire for a new challenge led to political activity.

A May ’09 to February ’10 run for State Representative garnered me 34% of the vote in a two-way race. Not enough to win but respectable enough (so I am told) to make it noticeable and noteworthy, a possible clue to more of the same to come.

The part-time teachers’ union for which I have labored for the past 14 years underwent significant philosophical and organizing challenges, the results of which are still undecided. For me though it led to no involvement in negotiating the next contract (I was chief negotiator for the previous three contracts) and a highly contested union election (votes to be counted this week) that may lead to my no longer being in a leadership position. Big changes for me perhaps and they are still in process.

My hot romance with Brian ended, proving that love doesn’t conquer change and instead may be a significant factor in it.

When the political run ended I resumed writing a novel that had sat unattended for more than a year and shortly after that our good friend Master Lynn moved in with Patrick and me.

In no time at all I found myself consumed with writing the novel, an exciting and creative process that was thoroughly invigorating. Lynn added a new dimension to our leather family, especially when he broke his hip. Our daily routines adjusted to his needs and the meaning of family was even more suffused with the ideas of care and service.

In the meantime I began transforming my vegetable garden into a  flower garden, hoping to make it an inner city attraction for butterflies. Lynn and I began an almost daily habit of sitting in the backyard at cocktail time, watching the winged beauties feed.

I also found myself cruising Recon, a Leatherman’s website, and meeting up with an increased number of tricks. One man from New York City, named James, visited for a weekend and quickly found a place in both my heart and my sex life. What began as a casual weekend of sex quickly changed into an experience of mastery and slavery that has evolved into a more structured, committed, and deeply satisfying relationship.

By the beginning of October I had finished the first draft of my novel and finally entered the new world of Print on Demand (PoD) and ebooks. Change long in coming but change nonetheless.

That last paragraph reflects a strange trait in change, namely that it can be long in coming. Becoming a Slave had been out of print for nearly two years -- a really good seller that I thought I couldn't afford to reprint. Something within me resisted the PoD route. Call it fear of the unknown, a feeling of being overwhelmed, or a self-defeating hope that something else would happen.

Then in a matter of the two weeks after the first draft of the novel was sent to an editor, Becoming was on its way to being back in print. Yes, it was a slow, but hardly impossible, learning curve. Yes, it took weeks longer that I had expected, but no, it wasn't all that difficult. It cost almost nothing and the reality was that having done it once, the next time (More from the Master) became much easier.

In retrospect I ask myself, "What took me so long?" Change is what took so long. It wasn't the change in publishing methodologies, it was the change within me. Even during the darkest nights, when dawn is most awaited, it will not be rushed. So, too, is the human psyche. Change it will, but only in its own time.
There's more to say about this. For now, though, have a great week.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Notes on a Scene

 I recently found myself in a very hot scene with a man whom I obviously found very attractive and who elicited a great amount of torrid dialogue from me. For those of you who don’t know, I tend to be very verbal in the dungeon, using both flattering and seductive language (“I want to own you for the rest of my life”) and contrarily a great deal of verbal abuse (“Suck me, you good-for-nothing faggot”).

 It all has to do with both creating a good scene and letting a good scene take you even further than you had thought to go.

 That said, it’s important to note that a scene is not a life. Of course one could just as well say that a life is made up of a series of scenes, as in Shakespeare’s quote that “All the world’s a stage.” However that may be, there still remains the importance of understanding that a scene is not a life.

 Unfortunately a good number of newbies, attracted to our dungeons by the hope of having their fantasies made real, also find themselves perplexed by the incompatibility of their fantasy life with what they know about actual living. So it is that I too often run into postings on the internet where someone outlines an impossible fantasy, only to flee from it when the possibility of its being real faces them.

 You know the hype: “Chain me in your basement for the rest of my life” or “I want to be castrated and abused” or “Humiliate and degrade me.” It is these same posers who cease communication when faced with the reality that you really do have a cage in your basement.

 The first note, then, has already been written: “A scene is not a life.” Let us enjoy the play while we do it and when we are done doing it, let’s remain mindful that we also have a life that needs to be lived responsibly.

 As much as we do enjoy scenes the next note brings them into a proper perspective: “Fantasy made real may not be reality.” Take, for instance, the idea that we have slaves in our subculture. It is a hot and enduring desire to be owned, used, controlled; to serve and to belong. Still, no matter how deeply the connection becomes between master and slave, reference to any dictionary will quickly remind us that there are no slaves in our midst. There are, rather, men and women who are in a relationship of voluntary servitude. Consent given can always be taken back. That is the reality and the number of men and women who were once collared and are not now makes that reality very clear.

 Next, then, remember that “Not every fantasy ought to come true.” The darkest of dreams, i.e., extreme degradation, mutilation, murder, and the like, may make (for some) a hot topic for masturbation. They do not make for pleasant reality when disease, death, or the law enters the scene. In that regard, there can be no abdication of responsibility, by either the top or the bottom. Play we can, but we are still required to play responsibly.

 “Not every scene works” is my next note. A scene, a partner, a fantasy may appear to be really attractive yet fail in the delivery. In that case it is important to remember that it is a scene and there is no shame in ending it. If it’s not working, say so.

 There is a saying that applies to scenes as well: “Be careful what you pray for.” I say this because it is remarkable to me what people will write in their profiles and say they want in a chat room, when they have no idea what the realization of their fantasy might mean. It seems to me that they are writing their wish list only to arouse themselves and certainly not with any intention to see their prose made real.

 Even with the best of prose and the craftiest of fantasies, “Let there be room for spontaneity.” Going with the flow, after all, is going to be more fun.

 And yes, “Life is a series of scenes.” Just remember when one stops and the next one begins. It’s also an encouraging note that says there’ll be another scene at another time. Until then, play hard and play safely.

 Have a great week. Jack