Insightful Excerpts

Plato and the Upanishads on the Chariot Analogy

How would you describe what it is to be human? To what would you compare our inner experience? Both the Greek and Hindu traditions have used the metaphor of a chariot drawn by the horses of our innate drives and guided by the mind. In the post on Hercules’ Rage I alluded to Plato’s version of this extended metaphor. The two versions make for an interesting comparison.


In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates a speech praising the divine madness of erotic love for young men. In the middle of this speech, to illustrate what animates our lives and loves, Plato offers the chariot analogy. He compares the soul to a chariot drawn by two winged horses, one good, one bad. In other words, the energies of desire and aggression can lead us toward the most sublime beauty or the most profane ugliness.

The challenge of our humanity, according to Plato, is not just that our natural drives have a dual character. It is also that we have forgotten the goodness toward which they are meant to lead us. Thus, our horses have lost their wings. We can no longer use them to ascend to the highest good. How do we regrow our wings?

In a word, by love. When we see an earthly beauty, we are filled with insatiable desire. This is a divine madness, says Plato. For if we are lovers of wisdom (what he calls philosophers), we see in this beauty a reflection of the pure beauty of the virtues. In other words, we fall in love because we see in our beloved some element of truth and wisdom, love and compassion, joy and bliss. Thus, falling in love can cause us to look upward toward these ultimate goods. And in looking upward, the conditions are right to regrow our wings. (Of course, “up” is itself a metaphor for the mythic region of the human psyche.)

For Plato and the wisdom-lovers in his circle, the most beautiful thing on earth was a young man before he grew a full beard, roughly ages 17-18, and extending out in both directions. Love of an ephebe was the most common and socially approved form of homosexuality in ancient Greece. It implied a relationship of mentoring a young man into full adulthood. Plato believed the relationship had spiritual value. 

Later, in his Republic, Plato describes the soul as being comprised of three parts. Here it is not a matter of one part being good and the other bad. It is that one part is our desires and appetites, and another our aggressiveness and aversion. The guide of these two parts is our intuitive perception, our third eye, that part of us which can see the beauty of virtue and all things spiritual.


8846635216870952To describe what the soul actually is would require a very long account…; but to say what it is like is humanly possible and takes less time. So let us do the second in our speech. Let us then liken the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer. The gods have horses and charioteers that are themselves all good and come from good stock besides, while everyone else has a mixture. To begin with, our driver is in charge of a pair of horses; second, one of his horses is beautiful and good and from stock of the same sort, while the other is the opposite and has the opposite sort of bloodline. This means that chariot-driving in our case is inevitably a painfully difficult business…

So long as its wings are in perfect condition it flies high, and the entire universe is its dominion; but a soul that sheds its wings wanders until it lights on something solid…

By their nature wings have the power to lift up heavy things and raise them aloft where the gods all dwell, and so, more than anything that pertains to the body, they are akin to the divine, which has beauty, wisdom, goodness, and everything of that sort. These nourish the soul’s wings, which grow best in their presence; but foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear…

Many souls are crippled by the incompetence of the drivers, and many wings break much of their plumage…

Only a philosopher’s mind grows wings… He stands outside human concerns and draws close to the divine; ordinary people think he is disturbed and rebuke him for this, unaware that he is possessed by god… when he sees the beauty we have down here and is reminded of true beauty; then he takes wing and flutters in his eagerness to rise up, but is unable to do so; and he gazes aloft, like a bird, paying no attention to what is down below—and that is what brings on him the charge that he has gone mad. This is the best and noblest of all the forms that possession by god can take for anyone who has it or is connected to it, and when someone who loves beautiful boys is touched by this madness he is called a lover.


The Upanishads

16235_Krishna-Arjuna-caring-god-Hinduism-loving-1920x1200-cIn the Katha Upanishad, Death is instructing the young man Nachiketa on the nature of spiritual reality. Here Self (with a capital S) represents pure awareness. It is the Observer which sees all but makes no judgments. Judgments are the stuff of attraction and aversion, and are rooted in the senses.


Know the Self as lord of the chariot,
The body as the chariot itself,
The discriminating intellect as the charioteer,
And the mind as reins.
The senses, say the wise, are the horses;
Selfish desires are the roads they travel.
When the Self is confused with
The body, mind, and senses, they point out,
He seems to enjoy pleasure and suffer sorrow.
When a person lacks discrimination
And his mind is undisciplined,
The senses run hither and thither like wild horses.
But they obey the rein like trained horses
When one has discrimination
And has made the mind one-pointed.
Those who lack discrimination,
With little control over their thoughts and far from pure,
Reach not the pure state of immortality
But wander from death to death;
But those who have discrimination,
With a still mind and a pure heart,
Reach journey’s end,
Never again to fall into the jaws of death.
With a discriminating intellect as charioteer
And a trained mind as reins,
They attain the supreme goal of life,
To be united with the Lord of Love.



If you are interested in purchasing any of these resources, please click a Kindle, Hardcover, or Paper link below. Your purchase directly from this link will help support this blog.

51OHoHizBJL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Plato, Phaedrus 246-49, in C. D. C. Reeve, ed., Plato on Love: Lysis, Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades, with Selections from Republic and Laws (Kindle) (Hardcover) (Paper), 110-115.

UpanishadsKatha Upanishad 1.3.3-9, in Eknath Easwaran, trans., The Upanishads, 2nd ed. (Kindle) (Paper), Kindle loc. 874-900. Lineation altered.


Hercules’ Rage

If time travel were an option, no doubt we gay men would be booking vacations to ancient Thebes in Greece. It was a hotbed of homoeroticism. It had been home to the Sacred Band, the military regiment of 300 men, 150 pairs of lovers, who dominated the area in the middle of the 4th century BCE.

Ruins of ancient Thebes

If we were to have approached Thebes anytime between the 4th century BCE and the 2nd century CE, near the Proitian Gates we would have come upon a large complex. It included a gymnasium, a stadium, and a hippodrome. At the heart of the complex was a shrine dedicated to the mythic hero Iolaus. Indeed, the whole complex was named for him. Iolaus had been a champion charioteer and athlete. But most famously, he had been a lover of Hercules, or Herakles as the Greeks called him. Male lovers from all over would came to pledge their devotion to one another at his shrine. For it was here, legend had it, that the members of the Sacred Band made their vows to one another. There was a similar complex across town that honored Hercules, the greatest of hometown heroes. Each year, the Thebans held a festival known as the Iolaeia or Herakleia, complete with athletic and equestrian events, to honor Hercules and Iolaus and the love between them.

Though we are not able to travel back to such a festival, I want to take the next few posts to explore the life of Hercules and how his story parallels ours as gay men. He was the most beloved of the Greek heroes. He was a man of powerful passions, both as a lover and a fighter. It was his rage, above all, that got him in trouble. It was rage that led to his hero’s journey. And it was rage that became his teacher. Let’s begin, though, with the other side of his passion, his prodigious appetite for sex.

Hercules the Lover

Young Hercules with his lionskin and club

Today we would say that Hercules was bisexual, as were many of those who told his tales. Iolaus was hardly his only male paramour. His conquests include some of the most illustrious names of Greek legend: Abderus, Admetus, Chronus, Dryops, Haemon, Hylas, Iokastus, Iolaus, Nestor, Philoktetes, and Polyphemus, to name a few. “It would be a task too great to enumerate the [male] amours of Hercules,” wrote Plutarch. Hercules was equally prolific with the women. One story had it that he impregnated fifty virgins in a single night. Hercules was often depicted carrying a lionskin and a club. I have to wonder if that club was a Freudian symbol of the wood between his legs. Hercules was a man of voracious appetites.

Hylas (with his water jug, rear view), H. W. Bissen, 1846. Copenhagen Denmark
Hylas with his water jug, H. W. Bissen, 1846

Yet the most romantic of all these stories was his relationship with the young man Hylas. In a terrible case of mistaken identity, Hercules killed Hylas’s father in battle. To make things right, Hercules took the young man, said to be in the prime of his youth, under his wing. He loved Hylas, and Hylas was deeply devoted to him. One day, Hylas went searching for water to cook a meal for his lover. Bending over a pool of water, he was enchanted by a nymph and sucked into a whirlpool, never to be seen again. When Hercules realized he was missing, Apollonius of Rhodes tells us, “the salt sweat gushed down his forehead, and his dark blood seethed in his innards. Angry, he threw a fir-tree to the ground, and ran wildly on whichever path his feet carried him.” In his grief and rage, Hercules searched for his beloved, but in vain.

The Greek poet Theokritus, rhapsodized on this story. This hero,

Who braved the lion, was the slave of one:
A fair curled creature, Hylas was his name.
He taught him, as a father might his child…

…’Twas all his care
To shape unto his own imaginings
And to the harness train his favourite youth,
Till he became a man in very truth.

Hylas and the Water Nymphs, by Henrietta Rae
Hylas and the Water Nymphs, Henrietta Rae

When Hylas went missing, Hercules called for him. Three times he cried the name of his beloved. Hearing a faint answer, muffled by the water, Heracles sprang into a manic sprint.

And as a lion, when he hears the bleat
Of fawns among the mountains far away,
A murderous lion, and with hurrying feet
Bounds from his lair to his predestined prey:
So plunged the strong man in the untrodden brake –
(Lovers are maniacs) – for his darling’s sake.

Hercules’ and Hylas’s companions, the poet tells us, were waiting for them aboard ship, ready to set sail. Long into the night they waited, sails hoisted. Yet Hercules searched on.

On he was wandering, reckless where he trod,
So mad a passion on his vitals preyed:
While Hylas had become a blessed god.


Jupiter (Zeus) seducing Olimpias, painting by Giulio Romano (16th cent.)
Zeus Seducing Olimpias, Giulio Romano

There was a fury to Hercules’ failed search for Hylas. As Theokritus wrote, “Lovers are maniacs.” Yes, but there was more to this for Hercules. He loved with a ferocity that seemed to rise from some deep well of rage.

We need not look far to find the source of Hercules’ fury. He was the love child of the god Zeus and a human woman, Alcmene. Zeus was irrepressibly sexual. He loved women. Whether they be goddesses or humans, married or virginal, it mattered not to him. If he saw a beautiful woman, he wanted her. And being a god, he had her. Zeus’s wife, the goddess Hera, was, as you might guess, livid at her husband’s infidelities.

448px-Herakles_snake_Musei_Capitolini_MC247Knowing that Hercules was Zeus’s love child, she hated him. She arranged to have two serpents attack him in his crib. Being a demi-god and the strongest of all mortals, baby Hercules strangled them with his bare fists. But this was only the beginning of Hera’s wrath. The goddess wanted him dead to spite her husband. Having faced repeated attempts on his life by a goddess whose scorn he could never escape, no wonder Hercules was full of rage. He wanted to live. And in the face of a constant existential threat, his will to live became rage.

Hercules’ great problem was his temper. As a child, Hercules’ music teacher was Linus – not of Charlie Brown fame, but the original, the son of Apollo and one of the muses. Hercules played his harp half-heartedly, and Linus reprimanded him with the swat of a stick. The child flew into a fit and hit Linus hard with his harp. It was a mortal blow. Hercules was put on trial for murder. He escaped punishment by claiming that Linus had struck him first.

Hera saw in his temper a chance to make Hercules’ life even more miserable. Hercules had married a woman named Megara. They had three sons together. Hera goaded Hercules into a blind rage, and made it appear that his sons were enemies. Hercules killed them. It was to atone for this sin that Hercules undertook his famous twelve labors.

Hercules’ rage was, at one level, not his fault. He was driven mad by a goddess. Hercules could have once again shifted the blame for his actions to someone else, as he had after killing Linus. But something inside him would not let him take the easy way out this time. He chose his own exile. He chose the hero’s journey.

Winged Horses

Lust and rage. Hercules lived them both. He embodied the desire and aggression that draw us forward, and sometimes drive us into destructive behaviors. How can we harness these wild horses? The story of Hercules offers us several bits of wisdom I want to explore in coming posts.

Helios, the Greek sun god, drawn across the sky by winged horses
Helios, the Greek sun god, drawn across the sky by winged horses

I use the image of horses as a nod to Plato. In his dialogues, Plato describes the soul, that is, the life-force in us, as a chariot drawn by two winged horses. The one horse is Aggression, and the other is Appetite. They are the energies that animate our lives. Plato says they are winged, because they are meant to carry us to the heights. Yet on its own, each is prone to gallop off into the swamps of excess. The driver of the chariot must control these two horses, rein them in, get them to work together to take us toward our goal. The driver, Plato says, is our intuitive perception of reality, our way of seeing the world.

Hercules embodies these two powerful forces, appetite and aggression. He begins life with great physical strength and even greater strength of passion. But he lacks control. His appetite for sex is enormous. And his aggression – that is what gives him the most trouble. The great challenge of his life, his hero’s journey, is learning how to harness his rage toward constructive ends.

Getting the three parts of the soul, as Plato describes them, to work together well is the challenge of being human. We all are on a hero’s journey, if we, like Hercules, are willing to accept responsibility for the life that we have been given.

I can’t help but pause for a moment to note that Plato’s tripartite understanding of the soul has a parallel in the Buddhist tradition. Plato indicated aggression, appetite, and our intuitive perception have to work in harmony or they become destructive. The Buddhist tradition calls their destructive forms the three poisons: attachment, aversion, and delusion. Attachment is a disorder of the appetites, aversion a disorder of aggression, and illusion a disorder of our perception. The antidote, says the Buddhist tradition, is to cultivate loving-kindness, generosity, and wisdom.

Evagrius Ponticus
Evagrius Ponticus

Similarly, in the Christian tradition a 4th century monk named Evagrius Ponticus took up Plato’s tripartite description of the soul and named eight deadly thought patterns. Gluttony, lust, and greed, he said, are disorders of the appetites. Anger, dejection, and restless boredom are disorders of our aggressive energy. And vainglory (I am worthier because I have…) and pride (I don’t need anyone but me) are diseases of our perception.

Anger, greed, boredom, illusion, and the rest – these are our common problems. We all struggle to control our appetites and our aggressiveness in one way or another. If we go off the rails in life, it is often because one of our horses has gone rogue, or the charioteer is using a mistaken map.

We sometimes say that our difficulties with appetite and aggression are our personal demons. I want to take the advice of psychologists Rollo May and Stephen Diamond, and suggest that we change the spelling from demon to daimon. We usually think of demons as evil – something to exorcise or expel. In Greek, though, a daimon is a spirit that guides us, inspires us, teaches us.

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå
Hercules Killing the Hydra, Guido Reni

Rage was Hercules’ daimon. It led him on the hero’s journey. On that journey, he learned to guide his aggression toward constructive ends. Likewise, we do not need to rid ourselves of appetite or aggression. They are manifestations of the life-force. We need their energy.

Like Hercules, we must reach the point where we are ready to take responsibility for ourselves, even for the problems we didn’t create. That is the beginning of the hero’s journey, a journey in which we will face our daimons in all their many forms. Little by little we learn to harness the raw strength of these winged horses, which when properly guided, will carry us to the heights of creativity and ecstasy.


To go deeper:

If you are interested in purchasing any of these resources, please click a Kindle, Hardcover, or Paper link below. Your purchase directly from this link will help support this blog.

ApollodorusApollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology (Kindle) (Paper). Generally believed to have been written in the 2nd century CE, the Library is a compendium of Greek myths drawn from the tragedians and other sources. Of all the ancient writers, Apollodorus offers the most complete telling of the myth of Hercules.

StaffordEmma Stafford, Herakles (Kindle) (Hardcover) (Paper). Stafford traces the history of this Greek hero in myth, tragedy, comedy, poetry, politics, religion, and art. Her work is a tour de force in interdisciplinary studies. There is no better book length treatment of the subject.

Rollo May, Love and WillRollo May, Love and Will (Kindle) (Paper). In this seminal book, May defines the daimonic as “any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person.” He gives the examples of “sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power.” He urges that both love (in this daimonic sense) and will (a firm commitment) are needed to make our relationships lasting and meaningful.

1672210616Stephen Diamond, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic (Kindle) (Paper). Diamond applies Rollo May’s concept of the daimonic to the issue of rage. He argues that the violence of our present culture is the product of deep rage that has been denied and disowned, rather than understood and channeled toward creative ends. He offers examples of how, historically, rage has produced great artistic works.

Diogenes AllenDiogenes Allen, Spiritual Theology (Kindle) (Paper). For those interested in historic Christian spirituality, Allen offers an accessible introduction to some of the best and most ancient wisdom, which is still not widely known among Christians. He includes a chapter on the eight deadly thoughts of Evagrius Ponticus, which is the wisdom that lies behind the somewhat reductionist and legalistic notion of the seven deadly sins.


Notes & Credits
If we were to have entered…: There are numerous primary sources, including Plutarch, Pindar, and Pausanias. I am indebted to Emma Stafford, Herakles (New York: Routledge, 2012); and Thomas F. Scanlon, Eros and Greek Athletics (New York: Oxford, 2002).
Abderus, Admetus, Chronus…: Randy P. Connor, David Hatfield Sparks, and Mariya Sparks, Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit (Herndon, VA: Cassell, 1997), 176.
“It would be a task too great…”: Plutarch, Erotikos 761d, in William Goodwin, ed., Plutarch’s Morals (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1874), 286.
“the salt sweat gushed down…”: Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautika 1.1261–4, as translated in Stafford, 135.
“Who braved the lion…”: Theokritus, “Idyll 13,” trans. C. S. Calverley, Theocritus: Translated into English Verse (London: George Bell & Sons, 1892), 72-76.
In his dialogues, Plato…: I am combining here material from Phaedrus 246 ff. and Republic 4.436 ff. The chariot metaphor is in Phaedrus, while the tripartite division of the soul is in the Republic. It is traditional in the West to translate logistikon as reason. I contend that this skews Plato’s thought in a rationalistic way. For Plato, logistikon is a synonym of nous, which is the faculty of contemplation. The logistikon is the ability to see the inherent structure (logos) of reality. It is not merely the capacity to reason logically.
… Rollo May and Stephen Diamond…: Rollo May, Love and Will (New York: Norton, 1969), 122-180; and Stephen Diamond, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic, rev. ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013).


Christian Tradition, Insightful Excerpts

Aelred of Rievaulx on Erotic Friendship

There are more uses of the erotic than just erotic ones.
~ Anna Kartsonis

There is a long tradition of erotic male friendship, from the ancient Greek and Roman world through the Middle Ages in Europe. It may sound strange to our ears, but educated medieval men often expressed their friendship for one another in the language of passionate love.

Still today, whether a man is straight, gay, or in between, he may recognize that there is something erotic about his friendship with another man, even if it never becomes sexual in reality or fantasy. Our culture acknowledges something of this when we speak of bromance.

The passage below is from Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), a Cistercian abbot, who wrote with great intelligence and passion about the importance of friendship. Many modern readers suspect him of being gay. I share that suspicion. But given all we know of him, it would be going too far to say he had sexual relationships with his fellow monks. What we see here is a man who is not afraid to use the image of male-male sexual love to describe his experience of close friendship. He makes it clear that, having taken a vow of celibacy, he means to keep it. Rather, he is talking about channeling his desire into friendship, and ultimately toward Jesus. His friendship with another monk becomes a way of using the energy of eros to achieve a spiritual goal. The mention of flowers and a bridal chamber in the last paragraph alludes to the biblical book The Song of Songs, an ancient love poem which he and others interpreted to be about the relationship between Christ and his own soul.

Some of us have dates or partners this Valentine’s Day. Others of us are single and alone. We who are alone have erotic desires too. What do we do with them? Should we grow frustrated, depressed? Aelred reminds us, as Anna Kartsonis says, “There are more uses of the erotic than just erotic ones.”


It is no mean consolation in this life
to have someone with whom you can be united
by an intimate attachment
and the embrace of very holy love,
to have someone in whom your spirit may rest,
to whom you can pour out your soul;
to whose gracious conversation you may flee
for refuge amid sadness,
as to consoling songs;
or to the most generous bosom of whose friendship
you may approach in safety
amid the many troubles of this world;
to whose most loving breast you may without hesitation
confide all your inmost thoughts, as to yourself;
by whose spiritual kisses as by medicinal ointments
you may sweat out of yourself the weariness of agitating cares.
Someone who will weep with you in anxiety,
rejoice with you in prosperity,
seek with you in doubts;
someone you can let into the secret chamber of your mind
by the bonds of love,
so that even when absent in body
he is present in spirit.
There, you alone may converse with him alone,
and once the noise of the world is hushed,
in the sleep of peace,
you alone may repose with him alone
in the embrace of charity,
the kiss of unity,
with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing between you.
Still more, you may be so united to him
and approach him so closely
and so mingle your spirit with his,
that the two become one.

In this present life we are able to enjoy those whom we love
not only by reason
but also by attachment.
Among them, we especially take enjoyment
in those who are linked to us more intimately and more closely
by the pleasant bond of spiritual friendship.
Lest someone think that this very holy sort of charity
should seem reproachable,
our Jesus himself,
lowering [himself] to our condition in every way,
suffering all things for us
and being compassionate towards us,
transformed it by manifesting his love.
To one person, not to all, did he grant
a resting-place on his most sacred breast
in token of his special love,
so that the virginal head [of the beloved disciple]
might be supported by the flowers of his [Jesus’] virginal breast,
and the fragrant secrets of the heavenly bridal-chamber
might instill the sweet scents of spiritual perfumes on his virginal attachments
more abundantly because more closely.
So it is that even though all the disciples were cherished
by the sweetness of supreme charity by the most blessed Master,
still it was to this one that he accorded this name
as a prerogative of yet more intimate attachment:
that he would be called
“that disciple whom Jesus loved.”



If you are interested in purchasing any of these resources, please click a Kindle, Hardcover, or Paper link below. Your purchase directly from this link will help support this blog.

Mirror of Charity

Aelred of Rievaulx, The Mirror of Charity, trans. Elizabeth Connor (Hardcover) (Paper), 298-99.

Ennobling Love

“There are more uses of the erotic…
“: Quoted in C. Stephen Jaeger, Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility (Paper), xiii. Jaeger credits a conversation with Kartsonis as the source of the quote (p. xi).


A Quest for Meaning

James Hollis
James Hollis

This past Friday evening, James Hollis, a Jungian analyst here in the Washington, DC area, gave a talk on “In-Between Times.” In every passage, he reminded us, something must die so that something new may be born. Western culture is in such a passage. The United States is in such a passage. And, I would add, many of us gay men are in such a passage.

Western Christian culture was built on a number of myths. By myths, I mean the paradigms by which we make sense of the world. Myths often work at the unconscious level to make sense of the energies of our psyches. One of the myths of Western Christian culture was heteronormativity. Men and women, the myth says, are complementary. Men are masculine, and women are feminine. The purpose of this arrangement and of human sexuality in general is the production and rearing of children.

This myth, broadly speaking, functioned well enough in society at large for nearly two millenia. The problem, of course, is that it did not consider all of reality. Some human experience was always marginalized and excluded by this myth. And today, our values of justice and equality are taking precedence over the myth of heteronormativity. We who are LGBTIQ are fighting for and gaining our right to be treated as equals.

The collapse of heteronormativity is welcome news to us. But not to everyone. Many people and institutions feel threatened by this collapse. The Harris Poll recently released a study which found that the level of tolerance for sexual minorities in the United States decreased in 2017 for the first time since Harris began doing this annual study. Opponents of equality fear what will happen if the classic myths of our culture are no longer operative. Will society devolve into amoral chaos? I understand their fear, even if I do not share it. There’s a good argument to be made for why we humans need myths.

The Importance of Myth

Dante Alighieri

The myths that governed Christendom have been collapsing one by one for centuries. James Hollis joked Friday night that the last time the Western world made sense was 1320. That’s the year Dante completed his Divine Comedy. Whatever one thinks of his ponderous poetry and baroque accounts of hell, purgatory, and heaven, Dante’s masterpiece represents an orderly view of the world, the culmination of a millennium of theological and philosophical reflection in the Western world.

There’s a popular and outdated view of the Middle Ages that terms them the Dark Ages. People still use that term, though historians have mostly abandoned it. The term was made popular by 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers who wanted to glorify their own era. Yet the Enlightenment produced more than a few atrocities, and the “Dark Ages” produced more than a few advances, some of which are still important institutions in our culture.

Foremost among these is the university. The first was the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, followed shortly by the University of Paris (c. 1150) and the University of Oxford (1167). The “Dark Ages” were not dark. Universities were the product of a well-ordered society that, if nothing else, made sense. They were the product of a certain theology in which everything had its place in the cosmic order. Everything made sense.

Few people today would want to return to the medieval mindset. Most of us do not, for instance, support the divine right of kings. And yet, there is always the danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Myths structure a society, and jettisoning them has its risks.

When we think of myths we usually think of stories about the gods. We may regard these stories as fanciful, even silly. Why, we wonder, did people believe such things? They believed them because they made sense of the world. We may rid ourselves of these stories, but do we rid ourselves of the realities toward which they pointed? Nearly a century ago, psychoanalytic pioneer Carl Jung wrote:

Carl Jung

“We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal specters, not the psychic facts that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed today by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.”

Myths order the psychic world. They give life meaning. When they fall apart, the psyche may begin to crack.

If some people fight for heteronormativity, it is in part because this myth brings order to their psyches, and meaning to their lives. They define themselves by it. I am a man, they might say, and so I know my role in the cosmos. It is to care for a woman, and with her to parent children. Or, I am a woman, and I find my salvation in bearing children and nurturing them to adulthood. If society no longer supports that myth, what then? The loss raises questions many people don’t want to face: Who am I apart from the myth? Does my life have any real significance? Or is life in fact random and meaningless? Is meaning an illusion?

A Gay Myth?

As gay men we have little choice but to face such questions. Few cultures in the world today have a paradigm that includes a meaningful role for gay men. Yet we exist. Of course, we ought to be treated with equality. But equality, in and of itself, does not provide meaning. We are here. But why? Is there any purpose to our being here? Does our orientation somehow contribute to the well-being of society?

Marty Seligman
Martin Seligman

Perhaps, someone might say, we can do without a myth. Let’s confine ourselves to objective facts. Yet if one includes among these objective facts the findings of modern psychology, we need meaning to flourish. Psychologist Martin Seligman famously includes meaning in his PERMA model of well-being. He defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self.”

In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman relates a conversation he had with Robert Wright. Seligman had just read an advance copy of Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright had argued in Nonzero that biological and cultural evolution has followed a basic pattern. From the beginning, it has favored organisms and societies that cooperate. Evolution is not a zero-sum game where one organism wins and all others lose. Rather, it is a non-zero-sum game in which survival correlates with cooperation.

Reading this led Seligman to ask questions about meaning. Now he’s face to face with Bob Wright. He asks, “Can human lives have noble purpose? Can our lives have a meaning that transcends meaning we merely create for ourselves? Has natural selection set us on this very path? What does science tell us about the presence or absence of a divine purpose?”

Good questions.

Seligman and many others see clearly the need for meaning, for belonging to and serving something greater than the self. But it is not clear to them what that “something greater” might be in this post-Christian era. Perhaps evolutionary biology can provide at least a partial answer.

James O’Keefe delivering his TEDx talk

Evolutionary biology is only beginning to suggest why some of us might be gay. Cardiologist James O’Keefe III offers a summary of some of its findings in a moving TEDx talkand a subsequent article in The Gay and Lesbian Review. O’Keefe tells of his son, who exemplifies how epigenetics may produce a male who supports his mother when she is under stress. The broader theory he articulates is that homosexuality enhances the survival of the family or the larger social unit. He quotes biologist E. O. Wilson, who says, “Homosexuality may give advantages to the group by special talents, unusual qualities of personality, and the specialized roles and professions it generates.”

61QkqMBhXaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Gilles Herrada (The Missing Myth) summarizes research on primates by saying, “Sexual behavior in general and homosexual behavior in particular form the bulk of the social glue that makes life in society possible.” Sexual favors among male apes, chimps, bonobos, and other primates facilitate alliances, promote group cohesion, reinforce social ranking, and help spread resources throughout the group. Without such behaviors, the violence of primate males can devastate a group. Likewise, sexual behaviors among females reinforce bonding and mutual support. It is not altogether clear how much of this analysis of primate behavior applies to human primates, especially those of us who are exclusively homosexual.

Evolutionary biology is still in its early days. What it has been able to tell us so far is helpful and affirming. But I am left wanting more. I’m not sure that what has been found to date accounts for the full breadth and depth of the gay experience.

A Call to Quest

It seems to me evolutionary biology can go only part-way toward providing the kind of meaning for which we long. We humans need to find meaning in our lives as a whole, not just in isolated behaviors or functions we can fulfill. Being gay is surely about more than offering sexual favors for food or gaining access to females. Is it also about more than specialized skills and group cohesion?

The kind of meaning that regulates and orders psychic energies is not something that can be imposed by the conscious mind on the unconscious. Carl Jung knew this well. Meaning must arise out of the unconscious. It must remain for us as numinous and powerful as the energies it orders.

Matthew Vines, a leading advocate for LGBT Christians

Some of us who are gay are still able to turn to the old myths and find meaning for many parts of our lives. Countless LGBTIQ people, for instance, are seemingly able to set aside Christianity’s historic antipathy toward them and find meaning in following Christ. Others find meaning in following Taoism, or Buddhism, or any number of other traditional paths.

But what of the one who no longer finds these paths available to him? Is there any way for him to find a myth that gives meaning to his life? “Then,” says Jung, “he has to go on the Quest; then he has to find out what his soul says; then he has to go through the solitude of a land that is not created.” As James Hollis puts it, “We all need to remember what our ancestors knew, that if we wait upon the silence, it speaks, and wait upon the darkness, it illumines.” We can be attentive to our dreams, listen for the inner voice, meditate, and engage our active imaginations, seeking clues to the numinous source of meaning in our lives.

We gay men need to embark on a quest for meaning.

Even if we find ourselves on a traditional path, there are few such paths that give meaning to our gayness. It seems to me that collectively we gay men need to embark on a quest for meaning. Let’s start a conversation about what being gay means to us. If Martin Seligman’s research is right, our well-being depends on it. If Carl Jung is right, our psychological health depends on it.


Looking Ahead

Next week, we’ll begin a series on the myth of Hercules, or Herakles as the Greeks called him. The story of Hercules is a classic hero’s journey. My purpose is to suggest ways that your story and mine are the tales of heroes. Just by virtue of being gay, we are cast outside the city gates, and called to a quest — for meaning, for transformation, ultimately for the well-being of society. What are the common features of our quest? What monsters do we often face? How do we capture or slay them?

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the meaning of being gay. There are no wrong answers. I’m sure our experiences are different, and your voice needs to be heard as well as mine. So please feel free to scroll down and comment.


For more on this topic, see Our Place in the World.”


Notes & Credits
“We think we can congratulate…”: Carl Jung, Collected Works, vol. 13, ¶54 (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
He defines meaning as “belonging to…”: Martin Seligman, Flourish (New York: The Free Press, 2011), 17.
“Can human lives have noble purpose…”: Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness (New York: The Free Press, 2002), 251.
“Sexual behavior in general…”: Gilles Herrada, The Missing Myth (New York: SelectBooks, 2013), 72.
Then,” says Jung, “he has to go…”: Jung, CW 18, ¶672.
Insightful Excerpts, Interspirituality

Neils Bohr on Religions

Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr were both Nobel Prize winning physicists. In 1971, Heisenberg published his recollection of a conversation between himself and other physicists including Bohr on the topic of religion. The following is an except of what Neils Bohr said in that conversation. Here Bohr offers his take on the nature of religious language, and why religions contradict one another, even though they may be speaking of the same reality.

We ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. True, we are inclined to think that science deals with information about objective facts, and poetry with subjective feelings. Hence we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective side much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.

That is why I consider those developments in physics during the last decades which have shown how problematical such concepts as ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ are, a great liberation of thought. The whole thing started with the theory of relativity. In the past, the statement that two events are simultaneous was considered an objective assertion, one that could be communicated quite simply and that was open to verification by any observer. Today we know that ‘simultaneity’ contains a subjective element, inasmuch as two events that appear simultaneous to an observer at rest are not necessarily simultaneous to an observer in motion. However, the relativistic description is also objective inasmuch as every observer can deduce by calculation what the other observer will perceive or has perceived. For all that, we have come a long way from the classical ideal of objective descriptions.

In quantum mechanics the departure from this ideal has been even more radical. We can still use the objectifying language of classical physics to make statements about observable facts. For instance, we can say that a photographic plate has been blackened, or that cloud droplets have formed. But we can say nothing about the atoms themselves. And what predictions we base on such findings depend on the way we pose our experimental question, and here the observer has freedom of choice. Naturally, it still makes no difference whether the observer is a man, an animal, or a piece of apparatus, but it is no longer possible to make predictions without reference to the observer or the means of observation. To that extent, every physical process may be said to have objective and subjective features. The objective world of nineteenth-century science was, as we know today, an ideal, limiting case, but not the whole reality. Admittedly, even in our future encounters with reality we shall have to distinguish between the objective and the subjective side, to make a division between the two. But the location of the separation may depend on the way things are looked at; to a certain extent it can be chosen at will.

Hence I can quite understand why we cannot speak about the content of religion in an objectifying language. The fact that different religions try to express this content in quite distinct spiritual forms is no real objection. Perhaps we ought to look upon these different forms as complementary descriptions which, though they exclude one another, are needed to convey the rich possibilities flowing from man’s relationship with the central order.


1001004004704670From Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond (Harper & Row, 1971). Republished in Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (Harper Perrennial, 2007).

Hindu Tradition

To Find Our Freedom

The world is the river of God,
Flowing from him and flowing back to him.
~ Shvetashvatara Upanishad

Is there any force on earth more powerful than a river?

Waterfalls have always fascinated me. I’ve meandered through the mountains of North Carolina, mesmerized by waterfall after waterfall. I’ve stood on the border between New York and Ontario and beheld water falling 167 feet over Niagara Falls. Yet Niagara, I am told, hardly compares to the world’s two largest falls, Iguazu and Victoria. There is something breathtaking about such beauty and such power.

Water destroys, and water gives life. Water batters our bodies and heals our hearts. Too much drowns us, yet even a little sustains us. Water thus seems a suitable image for the power of the Transcendent – call it whatever you will, Spirit, Tao, or as the Hindus say, Brahman. It is the force of life and death, that which destroys and creates. Come too close to it, and there is psychosis. Withdraw too far, and there is depression.

Of Myth and Meditation

An ancient Hindu myth tells how the giant dragon-demon Vritra took all the world’s rivers captive. No waters flowed. Earth became a desert. The god Indra gathered the army of the gods and launched an attack against Vritra’s demon army. At his side Indra carried a spiked club named Vijra, sometimes described as a thunderbolt. Vritra, for his part, was armed like Poseidon with a trident. The two armies clashed. The battle was fierce. Eventually, Indra’s army was able to crash through the ninety-nine fortresses of Vritra.

Now the enemies stood face to face. Indra and his elephant mount charged. Indra cut off one of Vritra’s hands. Vritra retaliated by swallowing Indra and his mount whole. All seemed lost.

Indra celebrating his victory over Vritra

But Indra, now deep inside the belly of the dragon-demon, did not abandon the fight. He took Vajra in hand, and giving one mighty swing, sliced through the demon’s abdomen and escaped. Vritra was mortally wounded. He fell onto his broken fortresses, crushing them beyond recognition. At that moment, the world’s rivers were freed from captivity. The waters flowed once more, and the desert of the earth blossomed.

The myth is an apt metaphor. Sometimes our lives are deserts. The waters of life are no longer flowing. We are out of touch with the Source of vitality deep within ourselves. We may become aware of this sometime after midlife. The energies of youth no longer sustain us. We grow weary. Life becomes dry and dusty. There may be many things that help us: exercise, good diet, testosterone boosters. But the real remedy is not physical, but spiritual. There are shadow forces deep in our psyches blocking the flow of the waters. Like Indra, we must enter the depths of our psyches and do battle. There are issues we must work through before the terrain of the psyche will allow the life-force to flow.

A stylized vijra used in Hindu worship

Many times, the meaning of a myth is buried in the details. So it is with this one. Indra’s weapon is named Vijra. The Sanskrit word vijra can mean both thunderbolt and diamond. In Hindu culture, the word has come to signify determination as hard as a diamond and spiritual power as mighty as a thunderbolt. It takes determination and spiritual power to find the freedom we seek.

sadhu-meditationIndra’s weapon is said to be made from the backbone of an ascetic. Any Hindu would immediately catch the reference. In Hindu meditation, the position of the back is essential to the practice. It is to be held upright, as if a string were attached at the top of the head pulling the back into alignment. This posture promotes relaxed awareness, the mind-state necessary for meditation. If the back slouches or is out of alignment, the mind loses its alert focus and the muscles of the back begin to ache.

When our life-energy flags, one of the weapons we may use is meditation. It requires rock-hard determination to meditate day after day. The benefits of meditation are not immediate, nor are they always obvious. Sometimes, when our thoughts are racing and our emotions careening, it seems pointless to meditate. We are in the belly of the demon. Yet when we meditate regularly, we will gradually win through to the deep source of spiritual power. The rivers will flow again.

The Still Presence

I first discovered this contemplative form of meditation using a Christian practice called Centering Prayer. The experiences I had in centering prayer were probably the main reason I did not give up on the spiritual path when I came out as a gay man.

Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the progenitors of the Centering Prayer movement

Like Hindu meditation, Centering Prayer involves using a word or mantra as an anchor for the mind, perhaps a favorite name of God or a word that has spiritual significance. After a few moments of collecting oneself into the here and now, the practice is simply to repeat the word silently and slowly in the mind and heart. That is all. If the mind wanders, gently bring yourself back to the word. If emotions intrude, gently bring yourself back to the word. Over time, the practice has the effect of calming the thoughts and emotions. You may be gifted with moments of utter stillness, when thought and emotion cease. In these moments, you may let go of the word and simply be still, utterly still. As the stillness passes, return to the word.

With long practice, first with Centering Prayer and now with a more Indian form, I’ve discovered that when I’m given these moments of stillness, all that remains is simple awareness. This simple awareness is what the Hindu tradition calls Atman, or the Self. It is not the ego, the conscious center of decision, feeling, and thought. It is something much deeper. It is pure consciousness. In meditation, as the Upanishads say, “the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal.”

I’ve discovered too that this silence is not empty. With my mind quieted to simple awareness, what I become conscious of is an indescribable Presence, infinite and formless, serene and blissful. This the Hindu tradition identifies as Brahman, or God. The Sanskrit word Brahman comes from the root brih, “to expand.” The infinite expansiveness of this Presence is one of its most salient characteristics in my experience. Hindus believe this Presence of which we become aware in meditation is, in Eknath Easwaran’s words, “the irreducible ground of existence, the essence of every thing – of the earth and sun and all creatures, of gods and human beings, of every power of life.” Hindus do not ascribe personal attributes to it. Rather, they claim only three qualities for it: essence (or being), consciousness, and bliss – or in Sanskrit, sat, chit, and ananda. This description stays close to what one experiences in meditation.

Paths-of-YogaMeditation is not the only way to access this still Presence. The Hindu tradition identifies three or four ways to do so, depending on how one organizes the material. Each of these ways is called a yoga, that is, a practice or way of realizing union with Brahman. The way of meditation is known as raja yoga. Meditation may be seen as foundational to the other three. Jnana yoga is the way of study and understanding. Bhakti yoga is the way of devotion to a particular god as a personification of Brahman. Karma yoga is the way of selfless service, which allows Brahman to work through oneself. These yogas are not mutually exclusive. A person may focus on a particular approach. But all will likely be present to some degree. These yogas work together and balance one another.

However one goes about it, the purpose of yoga is to live out of the Self rather than out of the ego – to let go of our personal likes, dislikes, and illusions, and live with a simple awareness of life and of its transcendent Source. This realization of the Self, says the Hindu tradition, may with time become our everyday experience. In the words of the Upanishads,

When the five senses are stilled, when the mind
Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled,
That is called the highest state by the wise.
They say yoga is this complete stillness
In which one enters the unitive state,
Never to become separate again.
If one is not established in this state,
The sense of unity will come and go.

The Freedom to Be

Consistently experiencing this state of unity is Hinduism’s fourth aim of life, the fourth purushartha. This aim represents a significant development from ancient Hinduism. The Hinduism of the Vedas recognized only three aims in life: dharma, artha, and kama. We have looked at these in the past few posts. As the tradition developed, it added this fourth aim. Hindus called it moksha, meaning freedom or liberation. Traditionally, attaining it meant being released from the endless, wearisome cycle of death and rebirth.

Mahatma Gandhi meeting with Rabindranath Tagore in 1940

The leaders of the 19th and 20th century Indian Renaissance, though, emphasized the importance of moksha for this present life. For them, it was the ability to bring the fruits of communion with Brahman into the present that ultimately mattered. Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, wrote: “It is through the heightening of our consciousness into love, and extending it all over the world, that we can attain Brahma-vihāra [the abode of Brahma], communion with this infinite joy.” Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi focused on this life, choosing a path of personal liberation that included the liberation of India from British rule. The concept of moksha as one of the four great aims continues to develop.

It is fascinating to me that Abraham Maslow followed a similar pattern of development with his Hierarchy of Needs. When he first articulated his motivational theory, the highest drive was for self-actualization, which is in many ways parallel to what Hindus call one’s personal dharma. The five drives he originally named are all ego-drives. This observation is not meant to denigrate them in any way. Each represents an important stage in our personal development.

Abraham Maslow

Later in life, Maslow added a motivational step beyond self-actualization, which he called self-transcendence. Here Maslow included the drive for communion beyond the boundaries of the ego-self through peak experiences. Among these peak experiences, Maslow included such phenomena as mystical experiences, transformative aesthetic experiences, and experiences of communing with nature. He called our capacity to have such experiences “Being-cognition,” perhaps his name for what Hindus call Atman. He observed further that people with a strong motive for self-transcendence regularly engaged in service to others.

We live in an age that desperately needs people who have grown beyond the ego-drives. We face crises on many fronts – economic, nuclear, interracial, and above all, environmental. What is more, the struggle for the rights of LGBTIQ people is far from over. In many parts of the world, it has hardly begun. My hope is that we gay men will rise to the challenge of our times, and live out our dharma to bring reform, compassion, healing, and reconciliation. I believe we are being brought to the fore for just this purpose. The world needs what we can give.

But our activism will be most effective if it does not come primarily from our egos, with success being measured by how well we are loved or esteemed. Activism is often thankless work, and without deep spirituality leads to burnout. Spirituality without activism, on the other hand, is sterile. We need an activism like Gandhi’s. Our attempts to liberate the world from the catastrophes of greed and domination must be rooted in our own liberation. Only by union with the Transcendent do we find ourselves free to bring about lasting change.

When the river of Brahman is free to flow through us, there is no limit to what we can accomplish. For then, all the destructive and creative power of the universe is speaking with our voice, walking with our feet, touching others with our hands.



purusharthasIn the post that began this series on the four purusharthas, I mentioned that the balance of these aims depends a great deal on our stage of life. Youth are prone to the pursuit of pleasure (kama). Until middle age, we may find meaning in accumulating means (artha). This is all as it should be. At midlife, though, we need to make a shift. Our goals need to become more spiritual. We should look toward self-actualization (dharma), becoming who and what our hearts tell us we can be. Eventually, even this quest gives way to a greater one, the search for the freedom of transcendence (moksha).

Gay culture, in part because of its relative youth, seems to be largely focused on the pursuit of pleasure and wealth. Those of us who are older, though, have a responsibility both to ourselves and to those who come after to prioritize larger aims. Our growth will be stunted if we see our later years as an opportunity to travel more, drink more wine, and explore our sexual kinks. These are pleasure’s aim. They have their place. But the great privilege of our later years is that we may be given more freedom, both by internal and external realities, to pursue the larger aims of dharma and moksha, self-actualization and transcendence.


To conclude this series, here are some questions for reflection:

  • Where are you on the journey? Which of the aims offers you the most motivation?
  • How can you best achieve the aim(s) you are pursuing now?
  • Are you perhaps feeling the tug of a new primary aim? Sometimes we resist growth. How might you cooperate with the realities of the life-cycle?
  • All four aims will be present in some form for most of us most of the time. Are you neglecting any of the aims? How might you give each the attention it needs?


To go deeper:

Bhagavad GitaEknath Easwaran, trans. The Bhagavad Gita, 2nd ed. Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007. The Gita is probably the best place to begin an exploration of the Hindu tradition. It is an extended dialog that describes four paths or yogas of uniting with that which Hindus believe is deepest in us, which is also deepest in all things, what Hindus call Brahman. Easwaran offers an accessible translation. The edition includes extensive introductory material that guides the reader through this classic text.

how-to-know-god-the-yoga-aphorisms-of-patanjaliSwami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, trans. and commentary. How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. Hollywood, CA: Vedanta Press, 1953. After the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (aphorisms) are the most important source for an understanding of Hindu meditation. The translation and commentary here make this work accessible to contemporary readers. Isherwood, incidentally, was a gay novelist; and Prabhavananda was his guru.

Into the Silent LandMartin Laird. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. For those who wish to approach meditation from a Christian perspective (or contemplation, as Christians call it), there are many good books on Centering Prayer, by Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, Cynthia Bourgeault, and others. I have chosen here an excellent book which is more firmly rooted in the Christian tradition, and deals with contemplation more broadly than the recent, Hindu-influenced practice of Centering Prayer.

81qisdCj5pLAlain Daniélou. “The Fourth Aim of Life: Moksha: Liberation.” In Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993: 127-77. I have included Daniélou in each of the posts on the four purusharthas, and do so here again. However, this chapter is not one of his best. While he captures a certain strand of Hindu thought, he does not represent the tradition as a whole. His writing suggests a man who has not quite understood moksha, but is intent on giving his opinions.

3e8b4934a231a8169465c2dd458a89eaKlaus K. Klostermaier. “Mokṣa.” In Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., The Hindu World. New York: Routledge, 2004: 288-306. In one of the more accessible essays in this volume, Klostermaier treats Hinduism’s varied understandings of the human predicament, the way to liberation, and the goal of liberation. He concludes with a helpful survey of how moksha has been understood in the modern era.


Notes & Credits
The world is the river of God…: Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1.5, in Eknath Easwaran, trans., The Upanishads (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1987, 2007), Kindle loc. 1915.
An ancient Hindu myth…: The story is first revealed in the Rig Veda 1.32 (, and mentioned in numerous later texts, including the Bhagavata Purana 6.9 (
“the separate self dissolves…”: Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.12, in Easwaran, Kindle loc. 1221.
“the irreducible ground of existence…”: Easwaran, Kindle loc. 354.
“When the five senses are stilled…”: Katha Upanishad 2.3.10-11, in Easwaran, Kindle loc. 1101.
“It is through the heightening…”: Rabindranath Tagore, Sādhanā: The Realization of Life (New York: Macmilllan, 1913), 107.


Hindu Tradition

Our Place in the World

I began this series of posts on the four aims of life, the four purusharthas, with the story of Bob Bergeron, a gay man who seemed to have everything, yet committed suicide at age 49. I want to be careful about drawing any conclusions from what I know of his story. Each life is a mystery to be held in awe, and I do not presume to know who Bob was. None of us knows all the reasons why we ourselves do what we do, much less why another person would choose to end his life.

But I take from Bob’s story a lesson that is admittedly my projection onto him, namely, that we gay men need to find meaning for our lives beyond the pursuit of pleasure and prosperity.

It is not easy for us to find that meaning. Our culture has stripped our gayness of any significance beyond mere sexual preference or, in many religious circles, the negative valence of sin and disgrace. It falls to us, then, to reinvest our gayness with positive meaning. We must teach ourselves and then our culture what being gay means. I will come to that at the end of this post. At the outset, though, it is important to build a framework for our understanding.

Marty Seligman
Martin Seligman

In our need for meaning, we gay men are no different than the rest of humanity. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, lists meaning as one of the five elements of well-being, along with positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, and accomplishment. “Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life,” he says. “The Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self, and humanity creates all the positive institutions to allow this: religion, political party, being green, the Boy Scouts, or the family.” Yet we are only beginning to be welcomed in some of these institutions.

Meaning is often socially derived, as Seligman suggests. In the first half of life, our roles and responsibilities often provide meaning. Like our straight counterparts, we are students, employees, entrepreneurs, sons, brothers, uncles, partners, husbands, and perhaps fathers. Excelling in these roles gives us a sense of well-being.

As we age, though, we increasingly turn inward for meaning. This insight is part of the genius of Abraham Maslow’s theory of motivation. There comes a time when the pursuits of the social needs for belonging and esteem no longer satisfy. “A musician must make music,” says Maslow, “an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.” What does it mean to self-actualize as gay men?

The Aim of Dharma

purusharthasThe Hindu tradition speaks of this need for self-actualization as one of the four aims in life, namely, the aim of dharma. What is dharma? I can do no better than Barbara Holdrege who wrote, “It is the dharma of the sun to shine, it is the dharma of the river to flow, it is the dharma of the bee to make honey, and it is the dharma of the cow to give milk.”

The Sanskrit word dharma is almost impossible to translate into English. We have no word that conveys the same rich range of meanings. It comes from the root dhṛ, which means “to uphold, support, maintain.” Dharma is the underlying structure of things. It gives to each being its place and function. “Dharma structures the universe as a vast cosmic ecosystem,” Holdrege so eloquently says, “an intricate network of symbiotic relations among interdependent parts, in which each part has a specific function to perform that contributes to the whole system.” Every part of this cosmos has its own dharma, which is entirely in harmony with the cosmic system. We gay men also have our part in this harmony. And like all human beings, our taking that role is a matter of moral dharma. It means living out a moral order which is not imposed on us by any god or philosophy, but inherent to our nature.

mirror-neuron-25595789Science is beginning to discover the biological basis of human morality. Mirror neurons were first discovered in 1988 in experiments with macaque monkeys. These brain structures allow us to imitate the behavior of others, and together with other brain regions, construct stories about what another person or animal might be thinking or feeling. In a word, they are the biological basis for empathy, which forms so much of the foundation of morality. Some researchers now believe mirror neurons demonstrate that morality is inherent in our biology, or at least that biology is a major factor in the formation of morality.

From a Hindu point of view, this should not be surprising. In Hinduism, there is no discontinuity between that which is transcendent and that which is biological. Indeed, the transcendent is the deepest Self of all beings. It makes sense, then, that the dharma of the cosmos, which is of a piece with ethical dharma, is written into the structures of our biology. That includes our biology as gay men.

How, then, does Hindu teaching define our moral obligations to one another? The Manusmṛti, an ancient text on dharma, enumerates ten such duties: contentment, forgiveness, self-control, not misappropriating, cleanliness, bodily discipline, wisdom, knowing the transcendent, truthfulness, and abstention from anger. The Mahabharata offers a slightly different list; but, the principle is the same: “Moral law is defined so that man will not injure his neighbor. Moral law is certain to be found wherever human beings refrain from mutual harm.”

Alain Danielou
Alain Daniélou

Hinduism has long understood that the specifics of one’s moral obligations depend upon many factors. They depend on one’s place in society, on one’s age and stage of life, on one’s gender, and most importantly, on how far one is along the journey toward the transcendent. Alain Daniélou writes, with perhaps a dash of exaggeration, “No action, no external or inner attitude is bad in itself. Atheism, debauchery, murder, or prostitution may be, and very often are, stages of liberation that are essential to a particular individual.” Indian culture certainly imposes consequences for some behaviors. Yet, to Daniélou’s point, it is extremely reluctant to pass moral judgment on anyone. It assumes we are each doing what we must on our ascent to the ultimate freedom.

The Dharma of Being Gay

If the dharma of the sun is to shine, and the dharma of a river is to flow, what is the dharma of a gay man? What part do we play in the harmony of the cosmos? To put it another way, what is the meaning of being gay?

Gilles Herrada
Gilles Herrada

Gilles Herrada writes in his book The Missing Myth, “After having been stigmatized as a sin or a perversion by two millenniums of homophobic culture, a mere half-century of well-intentioned pro-homosexual discourse has left homosexuality impoverished, truncated, disjointed, and ripped apart… As a result, modern homosexuality exists in body and mind but has no soul.” This is too harsh, no doubt. But I take Herrada’s point. And I agree with him that evolutionary biology is one source for constructing a myth that will give meaning to our lives.

Until such a myth emerges, we are not bereft of meaning. Several writers have addressed the topic of gay spirituality, and more specifically the roles of gay men in society. Yet, at least here on the east coast of the United States where I live, their insights are not well known in the gay community. In academia, which is Herrada’s background, gay studies is a contentious field, and generally allergic to questions of spiritual meaning. Many gay men eschew spirituality and questions of meaning because of painful experiences of rejection from religious people and institutions. Others do not think the question of meaning matters because they see themselves as the same as straight people except for what turns them on.

In my experience, being gay changes everything. I have different psychological realities than straight men. My unconscious mind functions by a different mythology entirely. Hence, my journey through the mythical to the transcendent – through the unconscious to the ground of my being – is different than that of straight men.

One basic difference is this: Many of us gay men, though not all, are a mix of masculine and feminine. We are masculine of body and feminine of soul. Yes, everyone has both masculine and feminine aspects. However, for the average straight men, the feminine is mostly buried in the unconscious until it is awakened and brought to the fore by a woman. For many of us gay men, the feminine is wide awake from our birth. Our feminine soul desires a masculine body. A woman’s body is not mysterious and magical to us, because we are very aware of the feminine in ourselves. A man’s body, though… wow!

The implications of this two-spirited nature are many. From birth or even before, we have lived at the meeting point of the opposites. If we are healthy and mature, we are masters of reconciliation. We have done so much work in bringing reconciliation within ourselves. With this background, gay pioneer Edward Carpenter observed a century ago that we “have a special work to do as reconcilers and interpreters of the two sexes to each other.”

Christian de la Huerta
Christian de la Huerta

Historically, we gay men have stood not only at the meeting point of the sexes, but also at the meeting of matter and spirit, of chaos and beauty, of so many seemingly irreconcilable opposites. Christian de la Huerta has distilled our roles down to ten, all of which could be considered spiritual. We have been:

  1. Catalytic Transformers: agents of change, and social reformers;
  2. Outsiders: those who help society see itself;
  3. Consciousness Scouts: the first to blaze new trails into the mysterious;
  4. Sacred Clowns and Eternal Youths: full of humor, entertainment, and joie de vivre;
  5. Keepers of Beauty: creators and performers of music, art, and beauty;
  6. Caregivers: healers, teachers, therapists, and counselors;
  7. Mediators: between the genders, and between the physical and spiritual realms;
  8. Shamans and Priests: in roles of spiritual leadership;
  9. The Divine Androgyne: evolving by marrying the masculine and feminine within; and,
  10. Gatekeepers: guardians of the gateways to the spiritual realm.

Today, as humanity stands on the precipice of multiple crises that threaten destruction – nuclear terror, unlivable economic disparities, environmental peril – there is a reason why we gays are becoming more visible and vocal just at this moment in history. The cosmos need us to take our place as transformers and caregivers, mediators and gatekeepers. This is our place in the world.

Will we fulfill our dharma?


For reflection:

  • What meaning have you found in being gay? How do you think gay men contribute to society and to the cosmos? For what purpose has nature made us?
  • Which of de la Huerta’s 10 roles best describes your sense of vocation as a gay man?
  • How might you actualize more of your potential at this point in your life?


To go deeper:

Coming Out SpirituallyChristian de la Huerta. Coming Out Spiritually: The Next Step. New York: Putnam, 1999. This is simply one of the best books on gay spirituality. The first section deals with our vocation as gay men; the second, with practices we may find helpful in the spiritual journey; the third, with the relationship between sexuality and spirituality; and the fourth, with living out our spirituality in action. The appendices include an overview of all the major spiritual traditions and their views toward homosexuality, a resource guide to relevant organizations, and an excellent bibliography. Highly recommended.

61QkqMBhXaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Gilles Herrada. The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love. New York: SelectBooks, 2013. Herrada is searching for the meaning of being gay. He offers an overview of mythic, historical, and cultural understandings of same-sex love. He is strongest when dealing with the biology of being gay, seeking meaning in how homosexuality has played a role in human survival and evolution.

81qisdCj5pLAlain Daniélou. “The First Aim of Life: Dharma: Duty, Virtue.” In Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993: 74-97. Daniélou, a gay French Indologist, offers a detailed description of how moral issues are faced in India. The content is not broadly applicable to other cultures, but gives a sympathetic Western observer’s view of Indian culture.

3e8b4934a231a8169465c2dd458a89eaBarbara A. Holdrege “Dharma.” In Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., The Hindu World. New York: Routledge, 2004: 213-48. In this academic essay, Holdrege makes the complicated topic of dharma accessible to the careful reader. Her essay moves through Vedic cosmology, hermaneutics, and ethnocultural considerations. After dealing with the dialectic between dharma and moksha, she concludes with modern reinterpretations of dharma.


Notes & Credits
“Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning…”: Martin Seligman, Flourish (New York: Free Press, 2011), 12.
A musician must make music,” says Maslow…: Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50.4 (1943), 382.
“It is the dharma of the sun…”: Barbara Holdrege, “Dharma,” in Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., The Hindu World (New York: Routledge, 2004), 214.
“Dharma structures the universe…”: Holdrege, 213.
Some researchers now believe…: V. S. Ramachandran, “Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind ‘the great leap forward’ in human evolution” (1995), Edge 69 (2000) (; E. O. Wilson, “The Biological Basis of Morality,” The Atlantic, April 1998 (; J. Haidt, “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review 108 (2001): 814–834; A. R. Damasio, Looking for Spinoza (New York: Harcourt, 2003); M. D. Hauser, Moral Minds (New York: Harper Collins, 2006); and, F. DeWaal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
The Manusmṛti, an ancient text…: Manusmṛti 6.92, harmonizing various translations.
“Moral law is defined so that…”: Mahabharata, as quoted in Alain Daniélou, Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1993), 76. Samiran Chandra Chakrabarti has analyzed Vedic literature systematically and identified the following moral values: truthfulness, harmony, charity, hospitality, purity, faith, self-restraint, Brahmacarya (primarily discipline and self-restraint), tapas (spiritual disciplines such as giving, fasting, and study), and study (of the Vedas). See Chakrabarti, The Concept of Puruṣarthas: The Value System as Reflected in the Vedas (New Delhi: Maharshi Sandipani Rashtriya Ved Vidya Pratishthan, 2000), 22-38.
“No action, no external or inner…”: Daniélou, 83.
“After having been stigmatized…”: Herrada, The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love (New York: SelectBooks, 2013), Kindle loc. 420-425.
… Edward Carpenter observed…” : Edward Carpenter, The Intermediate Sex (New York: 1908), 14.
Christian de la Huerta has distilled…: Christian de la Huerta, Coming Out Spiritually (New York: Penguin, 1999), 7-44.
Hindu Tradition

The Meaning of Means

Wouldn’t life be great if I could quit my day job?

The mythical hero Arjuna is asking just that question in the Bhagavad Gita. He’s in a difficult situation. His role as a warrior and a prince requires him to fight a battle he does not want to fight. He pours out his heart to his charioteer, who is the god Krishna in disguise. Surely, Arjuna argues, it would be better for him to leave his post and devote himself to contemplation. Krishna sympathizes with his plight. Yet he opposes Arjuna’s dreamy wish:

Bhagavad GitaNo one can gain perfection by abstaining from work… Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction. Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act… Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit… Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. [1]

Like Arjuna, we are tempted to think we could realize our human potential if only we did not have to expend so much of our energy on work. By the time we commute home in the evening, we’re exhausted. How are we supposed to find the energy then to work on ourselves? The Hindu tradition tells us we have it backwards. The everyday world of work is precisely where we must pursue our potential.

That is, unless we want to become wandering beggars – that’s an option too!

The Hindu tradition has no romance with Lady Poverty as St. Francis did. This is not a lack of virtue on their part, but realism. Even the Franciscans, who eschew personal wealth, require a certain amount of collective wealth to survive. As the Mahabharata says, “Without material goods, we may neither fulfil our duties nor realize our desires.” [2]

Alain Daniélou

The late gay scholar Alain Daniélou says it more saucily: “Even a poor man may inebriate himself with mysticism, but generally he is too busy warding off cold, hunger, or vermin to be able to dedicate himself fully to contemplation.” [3]

So it is that the Hindu tradition makes prosperity one of the four aims of life, along with purpose, pleasure, and liberation. The Sanskrit word behind “prosperity” is artha. In this context, the word refers to the material means we need to accomplish our other aims in life. The point of making prosperity a goal is certainly not to accumulate money for money’s sake. Rather, it is to have the means necessary to support ourselves, enjoy life, actualize our potential, and seek transcendence. This is what it means to prosper.

As I look at the Hindu tradition, I observe four key points related to the pursuit of prosperity.

1. Our work is worth it.

Sally Kempton
Sally Kempton

The Hindu tradition honors our means of livelihood by making its rewards one of the central aims of life. We do well to devote a significant portion of our lives to earning money. Learning to make and manage money is not an inconvenient fact of life; it is part of what gives life meaning. Yoga Journal columnist Sally Kempton puts it well: “Artha is the skills we develop to live a successful worldly life. I’ve found that if human beings don’t get artha together in one way or another, they feel bad about themselves. Artha is one of the basic human dignities.” [4]

Having the means to live well is worth our best efforts. As one of the ancient commentaries on the Rig Veda has it,

The fortune of him who sits also sits,
But that of him who stands stands erect;
That of him who reclines lies down;
The fortune of him who moves shall move indeed. [5]

2. Our work provides the resources for our other goals.

There is a sense in which prosperity is the most important of the four aims in life. Without it we are not able to pursue the other aims. An ancient text advising a king about artha, the Arthashastra, states this rather baldly:

Material wellbeing (artha) alone is supreme… For spiritual good (dharma) and sensual pleasures (kama) are rooted in material wellbeing.

Material gain (artha), spiritual good (dharma), pleasure (kama): that is, the triad of gain. Of that, it is better to attain each earlier one in preference to each later one… And since material wealth is the root of spiritual good and has pleasure for its fruit, that attainment of material gain which continuously results in spiritual good, material gain, and pleasures is attainment of all gains. [6]

Most importantly, it is money which gives us the leisure to meditate, to read, to reflect – to engage in those activities that lead us to transcendence. There is no reason to live ostentatiously. Yet we need enough to allow us to find the ultimate freedom.

3. Our work is for the common good.

Those who can earn an income have a responsibility to support those who cannot, whether they are too young, too old, or too sick. Those who make more can support those who add value to our lives in ways that do not readily produce income, namely, educators, artists, and spiritual persons. All of us help to support a government which, in turn, is intended to promote the common good.


In pursuing prosperity, we do not serve ourselves alone but “serve the welfare of the world,” as the Bhagavad Gita says. Thus our work takes on the sheen of a spiritual exercise. As one Indian writer was moved to say, “Wealth truly shines when others benefit from it.” [7] And why not use it to benefit others? “There are only three possible uses for wealth,” says the Indian philosopher Bhartrihari. “To give it away, to enjoy it, or to lose it. Whatever is not given away or enjoyed, ends in the third manner.” [8]

4. Our work is a place we can develop our spirituality.

This is the point Krishna is making to Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. There is a way of working that actually leads us to the experience of transcendence. The key, he says, is to do the work we have been given to do without concern for the outcome. There is a paradox here. Arjuna is about to fight a battle, and he is to fight as skillfully as he can. Yet, he is to fight without concern for the outcome.

Unraveling this knotty paradox requires understanding the Hindu view of the world. From a personal perspective, though, the practice is rather simple – not easy, but simple. We relinquish our desire to control the world. The ego lets go. Instead, we live out of the deep center of who we are, what some call the Observer Self. It is that deep core of us which does not make judgments about what is good or bad, but simply allows things to be as they are. This is the part of us that is transcendent. It is where we connect with all that is, where we are one with the universe. We continue to play our part in the world. We do what is ours to do. But our way is no longer to seek our personal satisfaction. Our way is to let that universal Being-Consciousness-Bliss express itself and experience itself through the particulars of our lives. This is the path of karma yoga, as the Hindus call it. It is the spirituality of the active life.

Our pursuit of wealth can open us to transcendence. On the other extreme, it can be a source of great suffering if we allow ourselves to consume the poison of greed. The Bhagavata Purana warns:

The miser reaps no pleasure from his riches. He does not enjoy them in life and, not having fulfilled his duty, nor will he profit by them when he is dead. Like a leprous spot that destroys all a man’s beauty, greed destroys his luster… Money divides friends, brothers, husbands and wives, and parents. All unifying bonds of affection are destroyed by it. [9]

How are we doing?

Over the years, we as gay men have had difficulty earning as much as our straight counterparts. Researchers have pointed to several factors contributing to our lower incomes and higher poverty rates. They include employment discrimination, lack of support from family, and a propensity to choose work traditionally done by women. That’s the bad news.

The good news is, it gets better.

Carpenter & Eppink
Kitt Carpenter & Sam Eppink

At least, our average income is improving. This past October, Kitt Carpenter and Sam Eppink of Vanderbilt University published a study with two important findings. [10] First, gay men in the United States are for the first time making more than our straight counterparts, about 10% more in fact. This higher level of income is especially observable among single men. It’s not all good news, though. Their second major finding is that gay men are significantly less likely than our straight counterparts to be employed at all.

It is not easy to interpret these apparently contradictory findings. The researchers themselves offer a few hypotheses, but conclude that more research is needed to explain the discrepancy. It’s possible not every gay man is willing to admit he is gay to researchers. Perhaps those who are willing are those who feel secure in their careers or those who feel they have nothing to lose. This could account for other disparities they saw, such as low numbers of men identifying as gay in the Midwest and higher numbers in the Western states.

In any case, older gay men are likely not experiencing the benefits of this improved outlook. Years of employment discrimination and other factors have taken their toll. Good research data is hard to come by; but SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) concludes that “discrimination across the lifespan and thinner support networks (among other factors) contribute to higher poverty rates among LGBT elder people.” [11]

Making a living is challenging for most people these days. It can be a meaningful pursuit, though – one that provides the means for us to pursue other goals, one that serves the welfare of the world, and even one that opens us to the transcendent.


journal-therapy-man-writing(1)Questions for reflection:

  • What, if anything, holds you back from giving your best to your work?
  • Do you have the means to pursue your other aims in life?
  • How can you leverage what you have to serve the welfare of the world?
  • What does prospering mean to you besides having money?


To go deeper:

Bhagavad GitaEknath Easwaran, trans. The Bhagavad Gita, 2nd ed. Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007. The Gita is probably the best place to begin an exploration of the Hindu tradition. It is an extended dialog that describes four paths or yogas of uniting with that which Hindus believe is deepest in us, which is also deepest in all things, what Hindus call Brahman. Easwaran offers an accessible translation. The edition includes extensive introductory material that guides the reader through this classic text.

81qisdCj5pLAlain Daniélou. “The Second Aim of Life: Artha: Material Goods, Wealth, Success, Power.” In Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993: 99-108. Daniélou, a gay French Indologist, draws together a catena of quotations from Hindu sources on artha, and offers insightful commentary.

3e8b4934a231a8169465c2dd458a89eaHartmut Scharfe. “Artha.” In Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., The Hindu World. New York: Routledge, 2004: 249-64. In this academic essay, Scharfe carefully describes the history and levels of artha‘s meaning, its place among the purusharthas, and the treatment it has received in historical texts and modern scholarship.



[1] Eknath Easwaran, trans., The Bhagavad Gita 3.4-26, 2nd ed. (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007), Kindle loc. 1000-1024.

[2] Quoted in Alain Daniélou, Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1993), 100.

[3] Daniélou, 101.

[4] Quoted in Hillari Dowdle, “Find Balance with the Four Aims of Life.” Yoga Journal, January 14, 2010.

[5] Aitareya Brahmana 7.15, in A. B. Keith, trans., Rigveda Brahmanas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920), 302, updating the archaisms.

[6] Arthashastra 1.7 and 9.7, quoted in Hartmut Scharfe, “Artha,” in Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., The Hindu World (New York: Routledge, 2004), 261, 262.

[7] Somadeva Suri, Nitivakyamrtam (Nectar of the Science of Polity), quoted in Daniélou, 105.

[8] Bhartrihari, Niti Shataka, quoted in Daniélou, 105.

[9] Bhagavata Purana 11.23.15, 16, and 20, quoted in Daniélou, 105.

[10] Christopher S. Carpenter and Samuel T. Eppink, “Does It Get Better? Recent Estimates of Sexual Orientation and Earnings in the United States,” Southern Economic Journal 84.2 (2017): 426–441.

[11] “Economic Security,” SAGE (, accessed 13 Jan 2018.

Hindu Tradition

The Pursuit of Pleasure

First before all sprang Kama [Desire] into being.
Gods, fathers, mortal men have never matched him.
Stronger than these art thou, and great forever.
Kama, to thee, to thee I offer worship.
~ Atharva Veda [1]

When Brahma created the world, the Indian myth says, he brought all its creatures into being by thinking of them. They sprang out of his mind, fully formed. Things were going along swimmingly, until the moment he began to admire his new, stunningly beautiful creation, a woman. She was incomparable, he thought, and perfect. Suddenly, something unexpected happened. As Brahma later tells it,

“Just as I was thinking like this, another amazingly beautiful being appeared out of my mind. He had a golden complexion. His chest was stout and firm. His nose was fine. His thighs, hips, and calves were round and plump.”

Kama, Hindu god of desire

Is this sounding like a romance novel?

“His face shone like the full moon. His hairy chest was broad like a door… He had a slender waist and fine teeth. He smelled like an elephant in rut.”

Ah, now we’re getting to the point. They say that male elephants in rut have a testosterone level sixty times higher than normal. He reeked of pheromones and sex. I’m into this. What about you?

“He was armed with a bow and five flowers for arrows. His glance was very seductive, as he rolled his eyes here and there. O dear one, his very breath was a fragrant wind. He was accompanied by the sentiment of love.

“On seeing that being, my sons [all the other creatures] were struck with curiosity, fascination, and eagerness. Their minds immediately became crooked and confused. Smitten with love, they lost their mental resolve.”

This beautiful being’s name? Kama. Desire. And so it has ever been. From the moment Desire springs to life in our minds, we are curious, fascinated, eager – and confused. The passage concludes with Brahma admitting to Kama,

“O best of beings, even I, Brahma… will be in your control, not to speak of ordinary living beings. Invisibly you will enter the hearts of living beings, [and] excite thrilling feelings of pleasure… The minds of all living beings will become an easy target for your five flower arrows. You will be the cause of elation.” [2]

The God of Gay Desire

Carl Jung was right. Myths of the gods speak to us about the often-unconscious energies of our psyches. We cannot control these powers. We do well to respect them, and as much as possible, keep peace with them. Most of us do not worship Kama as a god. Yet we must give our homage to the power of Desire. We must honor it, for it is, as the Atharva Veda says, stronger than gods and men. And we must learn, as much as possible, to harness Desire’s wild power.

Mitch Walker
Mitch Walker

Like Brahma, we gay men do not will Desire into being. It suddenly arises unbidden in our psyches when we are young. “The spirit of loving phallos [the erect penis] seizes a gay boy in its inexorable grip,” writes gay Jungian analyst Mitch Walker. It comes as “an internal Will and Purpose which has chosen him to be its follower, [and chosen] to be his inner God and Way… a homosexual Lord of Love and Knowledge and Self and Being and Becoming, of a centralizing homosexual lust and love as the bursting kundalini energy rising from the fundament to sprout Enlightenment in the mind.” [3] This is our Kama, the god of gay desire, and we are enthralled.

We are chosen long before puberty. When I was a young boy, I puzzled over what had seized me. How was it that I was so different from my brothers and my dad? How was it I was different than most of the other boys at school? The only way I could describe that difference to myself then was to say I had a girl’s mind and a boy’s body.

My self-perception remains essentially the same fifty years later. I would say it more skillfully now. I bear the imprint of the masculine on my body and the feminine on my psyche. I am, in Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ Latin phrase, anima muliebris in corpore virili inclusa, a feminine soul enclosed in a masculine body. [5] This characterization applies to many of us gay men. Masculine and feminine energies are both immediately present with us.

Michael Sigmann
Michael Sigmann

Michael Sigmann of the Men’s Inner Journey has helped me picture this. He suggests that we may think of these masculine and feminine energies as electrical charges. The feminine corresponds to a positive electrical charge. The masculine corresponds to a negative charge. A straight woman’s body and soul both carry a positive charge. A straight man’s body and soul both carry a negative charge. When the two of them come together, sparks fly. Many of us gay men carry a negative, masculine charge in our bodies, and a positive, feminine charge in psyches. Sparks fly within us all the time. Or, we might think of this in terms of chakras. The energies of some gay men’s lower chakras are masculine, and those of their upper chakras are feminine. Those charges meet at the center, the heart chakra, the core of their being. [5] And their hearts are filled with desire.

Whether or not we identify with this characterization, desire is at the core of who we are as gay men. We are incarnations of desire. We are possessed by desire. We are full of passion and longing and life. We are bursting with creativity. It is this unquenchable and infinite desire that makes us so well-suited for the spiritual quest.

We must begin, though, not with the spirit, but with the body.

Serious Pleasure

Danielou Kama SutraIn the Hindu tradition, Kama is not only a god. Kama is also one of the four purusharthas, one of the four aims of life. Here kama takes on the meaning of pleasure. There are many pleasures in life, from food to friendship. A good Hindu would not want to slight any of them. Still, kama is, above all, sexual pleasure. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Kama Sutra?!

I bless the Hindu tradition for this – for embracing sexual pleasure as one of the great aims in life. In the West, we have too often seen sexuality as the enemy of spirituality. It is not. The Hindu tradition is careful to place certain limits around sexuality. One should stay within one’s means and within ethical boundaries. Kama is bounded by artha and dharma. Otherwise, though: Enjoy! Experiment! Explore!

In trying to describe the Hindu understanding of the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, I can do no better than quote Alain Daniélou, a gay Frenchman who converted to Hinduism:

Alain Danielou
Alain Daniélou

Physical pleasure plays an essential role in our inner development… A man who strives to be chaste and who fears, condemns, and thwarts physical love can never free himself from the prison of the senses. He weaves around himself a web of obscure frustrations, which will hinder him from realizing his transcendental destiny. On the other hand, the man who has tasted all kinds of sensual pleasure can gradually turn aside from them, finding greater sensual pleasure in union with the divine. [6]

I will underline Daniélou’s comments with a bit of my own story.

Since childhood, I have been drawn to the spiritual quest. Having grown up in a conservative Christian family, I believed that I could never act on my same-sex desires and stay true to my God. I pursued God with my whole heart, and refrained from any kind of sexual activity with another man. I studied spirituality. I practiced spirituality. Yet I obsessively thought about sex.

My spiritual growth slowly led me to self-acceptance. I reached a point in my journey where the only way forward was to accept myself as gay; and that acceptance necessarily meant enjoying the physical pleasures of sex with a man. When I allowed myself to enter a sexual relationship with a man – only then was I finally able to let go of my obsession with sex. Accepting myself, and accepting the pleasures of gay sex, I found the freedom to pursue what Daniélou calls my transcendental destiny.

Only the Beginning

Pleasure, or kama in the Hindu tradition, is not the final goal. It is only the beginning. But it lays the foundation for the other pursuits. “A man without desires never achieves anything,” says the Manu Smriti. [7] The pursuit of pleasure must give way to the soberer pursuits of artha and dharma, prosperity and purpose. We will consider these in the next two posts.

Rasa Lila
Rasa Lila

Most importantly, the pursuit of pleasure maps onto the ultimate quest for liberation. One of the most beloved texts of Hindu spirituality is the story in the Bhagavata Purana of how Lord Krishna seduces and then runs off with a simple cowgirl. The poem is sometimes named after the dance they share, the Rasa Lila. It is a love story, an illicit love story. It is an allegory of how pure Consciousness, personified here as Krishna, seduces us each into pursuing our union with it. (The parallel in the Christian tradition is the Song of Songs, again a story of illicit seduction, which was interpreted until modern times as an allegory of God seducing the soul.) I mention this story because it suggests how, in both the bhakti and Tantric paths, erotic desire plays an important role in the devotee’s relationship with the divine. Kama is transfigured, or rather, transfigures the devotee.

I will give Alain Daniélou the last word:

“Mystics are erotic. They intuitively and profoundly understand the sensual pleasures of sexual love and prefer their experience of the divine merely because it is more delectable, more durable, more complete. It is the ambitious ones, not the mystics, who seek to place obstacles on the path of sexual love, since eroticism may become the means (perhaps the only one) of attaining liberation.” [8]


To go deeper:

s-l500Mitch Walker. Men Loving Men: A Gay Sex Guide and Consciousness Book, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1994. I include this here as representative of the many modern gay “Kama Sutras.” Much of the information in this book is, of course, available elsewhere. The twist comes in the intent to use sex to help raise one’s level of consciousness.

The-Revolutionary-Psychology-covMitch Walker. The Archetype of Gay-Centeredness.” In The Revolutionary Psychology of Gay-Centeredness in Men (Mitch Walker, 1999): 5-10. In this dense and evocative essay, gay analyst Mitch Walker describes the archetypal structures of the gay psyche, including a reworking of the Oedipus complex, which he dubs the Uranian complex. Worth a very slow and thoughtful read.

81qisdCj5pLAlain Daniélou. “The Third Aim of Life: Kama: Pleasure, Sexuality, Enjoyment.” In Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993: 109-26. Daniélou, a gay French Indologist, draws together a catena of quotations from Hindu sources on kama, and offers insightful commentary.

3e8b4934a231a8169465c2dd458a89eaDermot Killingley. “Kama.” In Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., The Hindu World. New York: Routledge, 2004: 265-87. In this academic essay, the author carefully lays out the multiple meanings and valuations of kama in Hindu culture and religion.

21826Alain Daniélou. The Complete Kama Sutra. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1994. This is the first complete English translation of the classic text, together with excerpts from two commentaries.




[1] Atharva Veda 9.2.25, in Ralph T. H. Griffith, trans. Hymns of the Atharva Veda (London: E. J. Lazarus, 1895), 433.

[2] Shiva Purana, Rudra-Samhita 2.2.23-40, as translated in Catherine Benton, God of Desire: Tales of Kamadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 25-26.

[3] Mitch Walker, “The Archetype of Gay-Centeredness,” The Revolutionary Psychology of Gay-Centeredness in Men (Mitch Walker, 1999): 5.

[4] Ulrichs, Forschungen über das Rathsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Studies on the Riddle of Male-Male Love), 1864-1865.

[5] The Men’s Inner Journey is a transformative, experiential retreat based in part on Hindu concepts. My Journey was in October 2017 at Easton Mountain. Check out the retreat, Michael, and the book he is writing at

[6] Alain Daniélou, Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1993), 69.

[7] Manu Smriti 2.4, quoted in Daniélou, 111.

[8] Daniélou, 114.

Hindu Tradition

The Far Side of Forty

It was written but never published. The book was named The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. The book was fully edited, the cover designed, ready for publication. There’s still a page for it on Amazon’s Canadian site, even an entry on Google Books. But the book was never printed. Two weeks after the author completed final editing, six years ago today, he committed suicide. He was forty-nine.

Bob Bergeron in Europe in 2003.
Bob Bergeron in Europe in 2003.

His name was Bob Bergeron. He was one of the beautiful people. After a nervous and awkward early adolescence, he started working out, fanatically. By the time he reached adulthood, he was built. He was handsome. He was smart. His parents loved him. He had two long relationships with men who remained his friends. He had a thriving practice as a therapist in Manhattan, lived in a condo in Chelsea, took semi-annual vacations to Europe. He was beautiful.

But it wasn’t enough. Nearing age fifty, Bob had a sense that the best years were behind him. A patient of his, according to a piece in the New York Times, recalled Bob saying that every gay man peaks at a certain age. “I peaked when I was thirty or thirty-five,” Bob said. “I was super-successful, everyone looked at me, and I felt extremely cool in my sexuality.” His vision for life after forty was one of “happiness, feeling sexy, possessing comfort relating to other men and taking good care of ourselves.” He wrote his suicide note on the proof of his book cover, with an arrow pointing to the title and the words, “It’s a lie based on bad information.” On New Year’s Day 2012, Bob brought his life to an end.

From the few sentences I can find about the book, it seems Bob’s vision for life after forty looked a lot like his life before forty, but fading. Maybe that was the problem for him. It’s hard to say. Still, I can relate to the challenge Bob was facing. I too wonder, how is life supposed to look for a gay man after forty? Or fifty? Or sixty? What makes it a life worth living?

How is life
supposed to look
for a gay man
after forty?
What makes it a life
worth living?

It’s not an easy question to answer, at least for this 58-year-old single gay man. Unlike our straight counterparts, we have few examples to follow. The Stonewall riot was in 1969, when I was ten years old. Most of the first members of the modern gay liberation movement were scarcely ten or fifteen years older than me. Many of the brightest and best of that generation were lost to AIDS in the 80s. Because of that generational loss, the gay community has remained to this day largely a young culture. Our cultural youth, so to speak, has been unnaturally prolonged. But that is changing, as it must. Men of my generation are blazing the trail of gay eldership for those who follow. How can we be thoughtful about our choices?

The Four Aims of Life

I’m inspired by the Hindu idea of the four aims in life. They provide a good framework for thinking about these questions. They are known collectively in Indian culture as purushartha, human goals, a combination of the Sanskrit words purusha (person) and artha (meaning, purpose). These are aims that give a person’s life meaning. They are not imposed from the outside, say the Hindus, but arise naturally from within.


The four aims are kama, artha, dharma, and moksha. I use the Sanskrit words, since some of them do not translate easily into English. A rough translation might be:

  • Pleasure (kama),
  • Prosperity (artha),
  • Purpose (dharma), and
  • Liberation (moksha).

Dharma is probably the most difficult word to translate here. Perhaps you’ve heard it in a Buddhist context, where it usually refers to teaching. In general, dharma is the inherent structure of things. So, when used of a person, dharma refers to the way one is wired. It is virtue, in the ancient sense of “personal power.” It is the structure of our personalities, and our potential to make a difference in the world. So, perhaps purpose can serve as an approximation of the meaning.

Mahabharata v 2The wisdom of the Hindu tradition is that we should pursue all four of these aims. Except in rare circumstances, we should not abandon any of them. In the great Indian epic The Mahabharata, the ancient sage Vaishampayana advises the king, “A man must not be too prone to dharma, not too prone to artha or kama, but always cultivate all three.”

Yet the balance of these aims will change depending on one’s phase of life. “One should pursue kama in the first, artha in the middle, and dharma in the last part of one’s life, one after the other,” said the sage. Know what phase of life you are in; but over the course of your life, you “should cultivate them all.” There is, finally, a further stage when balance means letting go to some extent of these three pursuits. As another passage in The Mahabharata says, “Withdrawing from them is the pursuit of Absolute Freedom.”

300px-MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svgOne helpful way of understanding the four aims is to compare them with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The psychologist Abraham Maslow, as you may recall, sought to describe how one’s unconscious objectives change over the lifespan. In an article entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Maslow named five needs that, in sequence, impel us to improve ourselves:

  • Physiological needs (such as food, drink, sleep, shelter, sex);
  • Safety needs (personal security, financial security, health and well-being);
  • Love (intimacy, friendship, family);
  • Esteem (self-respect, self-esteem, esteem of others); and,
  • Self-actualization (realizing one’s innate potential).

In later years, Maslow added a sixth motivating force:

  • Self-transcendence (altruism and spirituality).

As each need is met well enough for long enough, our basic motivation shifts to the next higher level, such that by midlife, assuming things have gone well, we are drawn toward self-actualization, and later, self-transcendence.

Abraham Maslow

By way of comparison, the first four of Maslow’s motivations correspond to the aims of Pleasure and Prosperity. As we pursue these two aims, our physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs are met. Self-actualization, then, may be understood as the expression of one’s innate Purpose or dharma. Self-transcendence, especially as an identification with the Infinite, is Liberation, moksha. The parallels between these two ways of describing personal development are clear. When I find this kind of correspondence, I suspect we are dealing with our shared human experience, what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy.

The Four Aims for Gay Men

For many of us, the first half of life is given to the pursuit of Pleasure and Prosperity. We don’t have to look far to find evidence of these pursuits in the gay community. From Body Electric to the best wines, many of us have refined Pleasure to a high art. Similarly, many of us excel in Prosperity. A recent study found that gay men “earn significantly more than comparable heterosexual men, a difference on the order of 10% of annual earnings.” This is a welcome change from only a few years ago, when gay men felt the economic impact of employment discrimination.

The challenge for us comes sometime on the far side of forty, when we realize that our capacities to pursue Pleasure and Prosperity are limited. Our bodies become less responsive to stimulation. We can no longer push ourselves through extended work hours and bounce right back. It is disconcerting to think that our best years may be behind us, that like Bob Bergeron, we peaked in our thirties. We’ve peaked, but only from the perspective of the young, a perspective in which Pleasure and Prosperity are paramount. We have not yet begun to reach our potential for Purpose and Liberation, or in Maslow’s words, self-actualization and self-transcendence.


That’s why I’m writing this blog. I want to explore what self-actualization and self-transcendence mean for us gay men. I want to explore it for myself, and walk with you in your quest for these high aims. I’ll be drawing together insights from the major wisdom traditions (from Buddhist to Sufi to Taoist), and the various humanistic and transpersonal psychologies (from Carl Jung to John Welwood). I’ll seek to apply all this to our gay experience. Over the next four posts, let’s get started by exploring the four aims from a gay perspective.

Welcome to The Gay Journey!


To go deeper:

If you are interested in purchasing any of these resources, please click a Kindle, Hardcover, or Paper link below. Your purchase directly from this link will help support this blog.

woman-in-crescent-moon-outsideHillari Dowdle, Find Balance with the Four Aims of Life.” Yoga Journal, January 14, 2010. This well-researched and reader-friendly article is chock full of insights on what the four aims mean for us today.

51jwLv8IDnL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Rod Stryker, The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Happiness, Prosperity and Freedom (Kindle) (Hardcover) (Paper). Yoga teacher Rod Stryker developed a course based on the four aims entitled “The Yoga of Fulfillment.” He then distilled that course into this book. With stories, exercises, and explanations, it provides a road map for pursuing the four aims. Also available are an accompanying workbook (here) and CD set (here).

81qisdCj5pLDaniélou, Alain. Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India (Kindle) (Paper). Daniélou was a gay French historian, musician, and expert on Shaivite Hinduism. This catena of quotations from Hindu sources together with Daniélou’s commentary gives the cultural and textual background to appreciate the four purusharthas in their original context.

3e8b4934a231a8169465c2dd458a89eaMittal, Sushil, and Gene Thursby, eds., “Part IV: Cosmic Order and Human Goals,” The Hindu World (Kindle) (Hardcover) (Paper), 213-305. The four essays here on “Dharma” (Barbara Holdrege), “Artha” (Hartmut Scharfe), “Kama” (Dermot Killingley), and “Moksa” (Klaus Klostermaier) offer accessible academic introductions to the four concepts.


Notes & Credits
The four aims are kama…: The usual order is dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. This order places the first three in order of moral priority. In this post, I place them in the order in which they become salient in the life cycle.
“One should pursue kama in the first…”: Johannes A. B. van Buitenen, trans., The Mahabharata (3.31.34), v. 2 (University of Chicago Press, 1975), 288, substituting the Sanskrit words for Buitenen’s translations.
“Withdrawing from them is…”: James L. Fitzgerald, trans., The Mahabharata (12.84.123), v. 7 (University of Chicago Press, 2004), 479.
In an article entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation”…: Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50.4 (1943): 370-396.
In later years, Maslow added a sixth…: Maslow, “Critique of self-actualization theory,” in Edward L. Hoffman, ed., Future Visions: The Unpublished Papers of Abraham Maslow (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), pp. 26–32; “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 1.1 (1969): 1-9; The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking Press, 1971).