10/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sex's Secret Gift: Aligning With The Flow Of Life

The first Daoist book I read on cultivating sexual energy rang a profound bell. Sure, there was the niggling emphasis on avoiding orgasm and making love in a relaxed way (huh?), but at the same time the descriptions of effortless merging sounded so right. I wanted to learn more.

What I learned was not what I expected to learn. After many bruises and breakthroughs, I realized that the Daoists were right. Sex is a mighty tool for centering, balancing and aligning ourselves with the harmonious flow of life.

My husband and I have been experimenting with this peaceful form of lovemaking for the eight years of our relationship. Both of us are delighted with the harmony between us (which is a far cry from the unsettling dramas of our previous relationships) and the unexpected decrease in sexual frustration. We have also experienced some profound healing and a continued, surprising flow of abundance.

To understand our results, it helps to begin where the Daoists did. Sex can be used two different ways: for short-term pleasure and fertilization or for creating deep, lingering feelings of wholeness and serenity. One term for the latter approach is "angelic dual cultivation."

Where ordinary intercourse is effortful, angelic cultivation [also called "the tai chi of sexual intercourse"] is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration, it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness. (Laozi's Hua Hu Ching, trans. Brian Walker)

Notice how this description differs from most recipes for sexual tantra (or even modern Daoist teachings). With some exceptions, tantra tends to employ sex as a potent drug, a means of gaining an intense altered state prior to orgasm.

Despite its glorious pleasures, orgasm whips up inner turbulence -- without our awareness. Deep in a primitive part of the brain known as the reward circuitry, orgasm equates with a mighty surge of a neurochemical called dopamine. It's the "I've gotta have it" neurochemical. It drives mammals to do things that furthered their ancestors' survival, whether on not those things are in their individual best interests. In mankind's case these things include the tendency to gorge on high-calorie food, take risks with little attention to long-term consequences, and above all, gratify our sexual desire. In other words, it is not the job of these primitive impulses to move us toward lasting harmony, happiness, or heightened spiritual awareness.

Indeed a Dutch scientist reported that brain scans of people having orgasm resemble those of people shooting heroin. However, just like a drug high, this temporary infusion of feel-good neurochemicals at climax does not last. Dopamine drops after orgasm, and other neurochemical shifts can make dopamine levels bounce around for days.

Without dopamine at its ideal levels during the recovery period, our feelings and even our perception of the world can vacillate. In a recent experiment, subjects whose dopamine was artificially lowered had difficulty resisting short-term rewards despite long-term negative consequences.

This neurochemical roller coaster ride (or "passion cycle") typically creates unnecessary turbulence for up to two weeks -- although most of us certainly will not connect any wobbles in perception with the great sex that caused them. At most we realize that we, or more likely, our partner, seems irritable, over-sensitive, defensive, unforgiving, apathetic, unloving, clingy, hyperactive, or whatever.

Ancient Daoist sages taught that sex is like fire or water. Fire and water, they noted, could aid a man...or kill him. The Daoists mastered a way to use sex without mood swings. They observed that intercourse itself is beneficial to both lovers, an effective tool for creating deep feelings of lingering wholeness. Sure enough, recent research supports the idea that affectionate contact between partners reduces stress, speeds healing, improves immunity, and strengthens emotional bonds.

By making love without intense neurochemical highs (orgasm, or the edge of orgasm), ancient Daoists not only escaped subsequent lows, but recorded heavenly feelings of profound inner peace. The ancient Chinese text Dangers and Benefits says this state is achieved through a combination of deep penetration, low arousal, and visualizations of energy moving through the body.

Whatever its ultimate potential, sex may be one of the most accessible fulcrums for shifting our collective mindset for the better. At present when we make love we unthinkingly hop onto the roller coaster of highs and lows (subtle or pronounced). Yet with some practice we could be using sex to move beyond the self-generated dissatisfaction that leads us to clutch at each new temptation. With stable feelings of wholeness and inner peace, it's easier to make inspired choices that serve our collective best interest.