The path of love leads inwards

The Taoist view of partnership and sexuality

(An interview from Tattva Viveka, Journal of Science, Philosophy and Spiritual Culture, for the special issue “Sacred Sexuality”, November 2021)

The Taoist tradition offers a holistic spiritual path that encompasses partnership and sexuality. Central to Taoist practices is the journey towards self-awareness and inner stability, as these qualities form the foundation for fulfilling relationships and a satisfying sex life.

Tattva Viveka: Today we are talking about the topic of relationship and sexuality in Taoism. In Taoism, sexual power is considered the essence of the human being. From it spring creativity, vitality and spirituality. But let’s start with relationships: Looking around, I quickly realise that, especially in the Western world to which I now refer, relationships are often characterised by conflict and a certain superficiality, and tend to be less long-lasting. What are we doing wrong?

Carsten Dohnke: Sometimes relationships actually work, that’s positive, but if we are doing something wrong, it might be that we don’t look inwards enough, that we don’t get to know ourselves, but rather out of our loneliness, out of our aloneness, we would like to spend time with someone else. As a result, two people often meet with their respective traumas or life habits and what follows is, from an Asian point of view, the working out of karma. It is no secret that from the unconscious level, you already know before the relationship which partner you will attract, because you resonate with the person who has a similar resonance to you.

TV: How can happy and long-lasting relationships be built and maintained from a Taoist perspective?

Carsten: An important point for deep relationships is: arriving at oneself. The Taoist tradition is also famous for its sexual practices, among other things. There is a lot of talk about it and many books have been written about it, but sexual practices do not make up ten per cent of Taoism, but practices such as Taiji and Qigong and also Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is integrated into Taoism, make up together with practices from mysticism, healing and meditation, form a larger field. Sexual practices are a part of this. An important approach is how we can relate very deeply to ourselves and so to someone else. The following sentence sums up what is important both in relationships and in therapeutic work: “A step inwards is like a step outwards”. The more contact I have with myself, with my inner self and my shadow sides, the more I can be in contact with the environment and my fellow human beings who shape my social relationships.

The Taoists emphasise one aspect in particular: coming to oneself. Coming to oneself consists in being able to switch off one’s mind and arrive in one’s abdomen, in one’s own inner centre of peace. It takes some time to learn this, but it is no more difficult than learning to play the piano or the guitar. After one or two years you can already do a lot. Besides being well-rooted and stable, arriving at oneself is an important point. If I succeed in arriving at myself, at my inner centre of peace, then I can better perceive and listen to the other person. Many conflicts in relationships are based on the fact that we have forgotten this. Or if we take the arc even further and refer to mysticism: What is the deepest issue in which one has spiritual experiences? It is when we perceive and relate to the other person, and so can feel life and also ourselves more deeply through the other. On the spiritual level it is relevant, and there is a parallel here with sexuality and relationship, and that is that I can listen to life and perceive it. I emphasise this because if we were to ask 50 people on the street if they perceive life, they might not understand the question because we often only revolve around ourselves. Perceiving life then means, for example, truly seeing the sea on holiday. In a spiritual experience, we experience ourselves as life itself. We experience ourselves as part of the universe. Like the wave that experiences itself as part of the ocean. In a partnership we come into contact with life. And sexuality is a foretaste of life meeting us.

In Taoism there is a deep focus on one’s own centre of peace and stability. This gives us the possibility to harmoniously connect with others. There are practices where we are only in stillness. Other areas like Taiji emphasise movement. Taoism has many facets and is not a congruent teaching that revolves around only one aspect. It is a complex system with three core elements: one is self-healing and vitality, i.e. health. This is especially important for us nowadays, because many people are exhausted or have already reached their limit in terms of health. Secondly, emotional healing, i.e. dealing with stress, but also with inner injuries. And the third point: spirituality. These three points make up Taoism. You take your own mind, move your body and learn to train and calm your breath. All this can be supported by a healthy diet and traditionelly also by chinese herbs.

Taoism is a path that leads to the mind via the body

From this perspective, Taoism is extremely important for today, because we are losing our physicality, especially in the last 20 years with the increased use of the internet and mobile phones. You also ask about sexuality and meeting other people; that is of course also physical. When I feel really alive in myself, then I also go into a relationship alive. And sexuality is based on both being alive, because otherwise there is no partnership. Based on the fact that we are looking for this aliveness and life force, the Taoists have developed very beautiful meditations on how we can open our heart and harness the heart force for inner healing processes and how we can activate our libido so that it nourishes and sustains us from within. On the one hand this is simple, on the other it is complex. We can sum it up like this: There are few people in this day and age who have an abundance of life force or “qi”. Most of them are stressed or permanently in their heads. Many people can no longer switch off their head. They are not only tense inside, but have also lost touch with their own vitality and lust for life. If I don’t feel love and joy inside myself or even feel empty inside, I look for all this on the outside. This is also a reason why many people do extreme things nowadays, such as bungy jumping, etc. They want to finally feel themselves again. One finally wants to feel oneself again.

The meditation systems of the Taoists can be relevant for our everyday life. This is because the focus of Taoism is first on aliveness and health. Only in second place are stillness and inner contemplation. In order to feel truly healthy and alive, one learns in the inner practices of Tao to activate the power of the heart and the libido. Both forces are not only deep healing powers. They also enhance our creativity and love of life and support our inner growth and spirituality. In the inner practices of Tao, one of the first things one learns is to bring these two energies together in the body, in one’s own centre.

TV: This leads into one’s own aliveness

Carsten: This leads to an aliveness that is completely beyond the imagination of people who do not practise this. Normally, many people cannot feel their heart, but they can feel it when they are in love. In my seminars I work with very many people who, after one or two years of practice (especially), come up to me and say, “I never felt my heart like this at all before in my life in this form.” It’s like a pervasive light that overwhelms you, it’s not like being in love, it’s a heart power that fills you from within.

TV: But heart power is not the only thing you can feel in the heart, is it?

Carsten: The heart has many qualities. The basic idea in Taoism as well as in many other traditions – for example Christianity or Buddhism – is that we really open our heart. But one point distinguishes Taoism from the other traditions in terms of relationship and sexuality: Taoists try to activate their libido through meditation and thus return it to the body. You can ask how this relates to partnership, and the answer would be that it is essential to first feel this aliveness and love within yourself, because this is the basis for giving deep aliveness to someone else in the first place.

Your question before was what is the dilemma in most partnerships today, and I said most people don’t feel themselves. And I would add that they are exhausted or don’t feel their heart and/or libido. Therefore, they expect something from the other person. That’s what makes it complex: I don’t go into partnership to dive into a deep resonant field where I also give something, but actually I come into partnership with a deficit. Nevertheless, one can support oneself in life. The Taoists say that when we activate our aliveness itself within us, we can enter into deep processes of self-healing and energy generation. But something special also happens when our heart energy and libido come together in the belly. One of the deepest meditations is called “the union of water and fire”. This leads to a different vibration entering all the cells, an inner initialisation process, a healing process. If it succeeds, it is more than a rejuvenation process. The sexual energy is the basis of Kundalini, also in yoga. At the bottom is the sexual power. In yoga there are similar practices and it is a similar theme: how can I avoid always losing this sexual power, whether in a partnership, during sexual intercourse or that it just escapes, which happens to many nowadays, so as not to get into an exhaustion? The Taoists found that the sexual force is the basis of all aliveness and all creative processes, because every creative process in life, whether a flower opens, someone writes a new book or starts a project, is based on this deep life force that wants to unfold. When people are exhausted or older, they often say that they would like to do another project, but they lack the energy. The Taoists’ idea is this: We bring these two forces together in us and feel this deep aliveness in us, also the sexual force as an active force. And it would be ideal if this could also be realised in a partnership.

TV: Would you say that the goal of sexuality in Taoism is to achieve this aliveness through sexuality?

Carsten: Why are people drawn to sexuality in the first place? It is the aliveness. Nobody desires sexuality in order to be completely calm, but we feel a total aliveness within us, and it is not without reason that it is said that an orgasm is one of the deepest feelings a person can experience in union. That’s why the Taoists said that we should recycle this energy within us, we absorb it and transform it in meditation, because then you experience a deep aliveness like in sexuality, but combined with stillness and stability, especially with the heart force.

This is what most people are missing these days. In my more than 30 years as a teacher, I frequently hear from participants that their lives would have been different if they had learned earlier to arrive at themselves, to feel love even without a partner, and to perceive valiveness and vitality  in presence and stillness. This is a very good foundation for all partnerships. Many partnerships come and go quickly nowadays, like friendships, because if the partner is no longer present or is exhausted or overworked, it happens quickly that one does not feel seen and thus is no longer connected. This leads to the loss of heart contact, and then the partnership usually ends relatively quickly.

Evolution has created something special for us that most people are not aware of: when we are in love, we always feel a direct connection with our partner and are in a heart-to-heart contact. In this state, communication is also no longer mental, but goes through the heart level or through subtle gestures. When you are in love, everything blossoms and everyone is floating on a pink cloud. It’s a beautiful feeling, but as they say, you’re in love, you’re no longer completely with yourself and so no longer connected to your inner pole. You have already lost yourself a little. When you’re in a relationship, after two to three years the heart-to-heart contact is usually lost, partly because the hormones also change. You enter a different phase of the relationship. Then many people wonder what they got into. The nice thing is that Taoism foresees this. Other wisdom traditions do too. They see this feeling of being in love as a momentary phase. This is also why contact with one’s own centre, heart power and libido is so emphasised. Because if we stay in touch with these resources, we project much less onto the partner. And in this way we can maintain the vitality in the partnership for a long time, possibly for our whole life.

TV: How can you maintain this heart connection?

Carsten: Among other things, by making the deep decision, which is not easy, that you regularly do inner meditative practices for yourself. That is the crucial thing. You can implement certain sexual practices in your partnership, but that usually doesn’t help for a good partnership, but you need this inner coming together and this inner connection to yourself. That helps to stay in the heart. Another important point is that the topic of Taoist meditation, sexuality and partnership crosses over into two areas, one is spirituality and mysticism and the other is psychology. There are great intersections.

In Taoist sexual practices, it often happens that one is overwhelmed by the energy when one feels the heart force or notices the libido bubbling up. When this occurs, one goes less into the finer vibrations in meditation, although this is the point, because in all meditation systems in the world it is elementary to process old emotional issues or traumas. In my opinion, this would be the important third point for a good and deep partnership: the first is, after all, the ability to be in one’s centre and to be able to switch off, the second is the connection between the heart and sexuality, and the third step is that I dive into my old emotional issues and heal inner injuries and traumas because I am more and more in touch with myself. Nowadays there are many therapeutic methods that work relatively quickly as complementary approaches. One reason for this is that the meditations already help to connect with unresolved issues or inner shadow sides. I emphasise this because it is often not done if only the energy level is emphasised. In other words, soul reappraisal is indispensable for a successful partnership. The inner child wants to be seen. This also applies to all spiritual practices in the wisdom teachings of Taoism.

TV: I observe in my environment that there are people who are caught in a loop, because the same themes or problems keep coming up in their partnerships. Often it is more noticeable to outsiders that one finds oneself in almost the same situation as in the past. If one reads spiritual or psychologically oriented books and observes oneself and one’s fellow human beings, then one notices that themes return again and again until one encounters them differently.

Carsten: There are many exciting connections here. The Taoists say – and I like this approach very much: We are in the world and we have the chance to grow and develop; once spiritually, but also in everyday life we can develop our potential and our ability to love and be alive. It is interesting that brain research in particular says that long-term changes can succeed very well through practices such as Qigong or Taiji, meditation and body exercises. Our character is shaped by our body. Taoism, like Qigong, is also about new body structures and new postures and about feeling physically whole.

This is a great opportunity to change one’s character, because old traumatic experiences are stored through our postures. There are many examples of this: When I am angry, I have a different posture than when I feel like everything in life is too much for me or I am sad. We all adopt these typical postures from time to time. But the point is: when these postures become chronic and fixed in us, they are actually “like ice”. We no longer feel them. They have then become part of our character and are therefore always present.

We do not feel the ice in us, but only what is moving alive in us. Therefore, it is a huge opportunity to combine bodywork with meditation and organ healing. I see many people who are fundamentally transformed and, as a result, enter into different relationships. Behind this is the following sentence: Actually, if we are completely honest, we often treat ourselves uncharitably, especially in our time, everything is supposed to go faster, everyone is supposed to function better; mostly we grow up already in school in such a way that it is suggested to us that we should learn faster so that later on we will be good at university and in our job, and if we are programmed to function well, we get our reward through the resonance in our environment. The result is that we no longer feel ourselves and are not loving towards ourselves. It needs this loving approach to ourselves so that we can physically unfold ourselves and melt our old issues within us. Our love shines like a sun on the inner ice. And by moving consciously, we allow the ice within us to melt as well and begin to feel ourselves again.

TV: What do the Taoists understand by sexual energy and how do they work with it?

Carsten: They understand it as the sexual power, especially the power in the testicles or ovaries as the stored energy of reproduction, but also the energy in the entire area of the sexual organs. Here is an additional important piece of information: according to Chinese medicine and Taoism, the sexual power originates in the kidneys. This means that the two kidneys store our prenatal or inherited energy and in this sense bring forth the sexual power. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is an application that is used for exhaustion or infertility. In this context, herbs are given to build up the blood, but in most cases to build up the kidney energy. One strengthens the kidneys. If a man is impotent, acupuncture is given at the back on the points of the bladder meridian where the two kidneys are located. Often the warming moxa therapy is also used there, which gives a lot of strength. The kidney energy is immensely important because it brings forth the sexual energy. Conversely, if I am in a deep state of exhaustion, then it is of no use to learn sexual practices, but one should first build up the kidney energy, which brings forth the sexual energy, which in turn supports the partnership and makes it easier to get pregnant, if that is what one wants as a woman. Strengthening the kidney energy also helps to support the man’s potency and thus prevent premature ejaculation, for example.

The Taoist sexual practices are called Huan Jing Bu Nao, in Chinese “one reverses the essence”. The essence is the kidney and sexual energy, because sexual power comes from the kidneys, and this essence is directed back into the brain so that it can work well and so that, similar to the chakra teachings of yoga, the higher energy centres can open up. As a result, our intuition can also unfold and we experience a kind of inner wisdom. Colloquially speaking, these exercises are the hammer, because they change the life of every person and are not too difficult. It is wonderful when people notice that the love of their heart flows down into the sexual organs and pelvic floor like a nectar and all of a sudden a vibrancy of love and libido flows into the brain via the spine and the mind becomes infinitely wide. That is one way of dealing with an excess of libido. Once this surplus has bubbled up, it acts like its own champagne in the body and one no longer necessarily feels the need for sexuality.

Sexuality always needs a connection with deeper layers within us. Men are yang-biased, i.e. active, even in a partnership. If a man has no erection, there is no sex. From a Chinese point of view, the erection goes hand in hand with the energy of the liver. The liver with its blood causes the erection, and the liver is related to our power and dynamism, to our kindness, but also to our anger. If I as a man enter into sexuality or relationship with inner tension, the sexual power often mixes with inner anger. Many people carry this tension inside themselves and don’t know what to do with it. That’s not what we learn in school. Sometimes it really comes out, but mostly it is suppressed. At the same time, liver energy is also related to tiredness. It is precisely when the liver energy is stagnant or over-activated, and this is the feeling one often has after a large meal, for example, that one becomes tired. This tiredness and sluggishness is carried by many all the time and that’s why you don’t see the anger, but underneath the sluggishness it is bubbling. This is why it can be important for us to learn the Taoist sexual practices where we can draw the sexual energy up into the brain. And this is also possible for women. In concrete terms, this means that men tend to avoid their normal orgasm, where ejaculation occurs. But by bringing the libido up into the spine and the brain, he can at the same time relieve inner stress and transform the sexual power into a kind of healing power or new life energy that fills all the cells with new vitality from within.

TV: How do the Taoists see the role of the woman and the man in the relationship and in sexuality respectively?

Carsten: For the man, the connection of the sexual power with his heart is important, because this does not normally happen with the man. By connecting with his heart, he can go deeper into the relationship and possibly implement certain practices. Through some Taoist sexual practices, the man can succeed in having sex longer. Both are in intercourse, then come to rest whether they are inside each other or not, and the sexual power bubbles up into the cells, possibly even bubbling through both of them, and this creates an immense closeness to the other person. For the man it is therefore most important to experience the connection to the heart, and at the same time to clear old emotional injuries. Because sexual energy in men is very yang and is also determined by the liver, it easily mixes with tension, stress and hidden anger. This becomes especially apparent in cases of rape. And abuse and also violence in the family increase, as is well known, when social and personal stress increases. A very serious issue. What is striking here: Men can have sex when they are full of anger. Sex then becomes a kind of outlet to release the pressure. Women cannot do that. For women, sexuality usually begins with opening up and surrender. That’s why you don’t hear much about a man being raped. And that’s why it’s so important for men to learn to connect with their heart and release their inner tensions.

Many women tell me that it is relatively easy for them to let the energy bubble up and they feel their heart quickly. This is true in many cases, but ultimately it is different for each person. In some cases, it really happens on its own for women.

Which issue is more relevant to women? Stability and coming to terms with oneself, I could summarise. Because with women it happens quickly that they lose themselves in a relationship or literally melt into the relationship. Maybe it’s the way evolution wants it, because they can get pregnant and have the role of mother. As a woman, if you are not in your own centre and in your own peace, it is easy to melt into the relationship and possibly lose yourself in it. On the one hand, this sounds very positive, this melting has its qualities of course, but on the other hand, it goes hand in hand with a lostness. Because when it comes to separation, one’s own life collapses. These are complex issues, but in my experience it has to do with having children, because when there is a child, the woman has much more closeness to the child than the man. The man also has closeness to the child, but in many cases the man only really plays with the child when it can already walk.

The connection between mother and child is unique, they merge into one in the meantime and the maternal instinct comes to the fore. Many women also experience this merging when they enter a new relationship or even merge with their home. The catch is that many do not come to terms with themselves as a result. And the consequence is that many lose their clarity. And when I am one with someone, any criticism hits me deep in the heart. Women often feel a deep pain or emptiness when their own children leave home. Many collapse because of the pain and can no longer find themselves. This brings us back to the core of Taoism: coming to oneself. This coming to oneself creates a deeper relationship with one’s own heart, one’s own capacity for love and libido, and the ability to enter into a relationship with clarity. Because relationships need conflicts, we live from conflicts. Conflicts are not always negative, but in the relationship space there are always things that need to be clarified, that we chafe at. Be it between partners or between mother and child or in the company or society, and through this we grow. When I am merged, I am no longer capable of conflict, because how can I criticise this person with whom I am nevertheless a unit. That is the big dilemma.

TV: One last question: How can sexuality have a healing effect?

Carsten: It can have a healing effect when we open the heart in sexuality with our partner and the energies begin to flow internally. The Taoist practices support the inner flow because the energies bubble up into all organs. However, it can also have a healing effect without these practices if you start to melt and flow inside and let go.

Research found that people who have sex regularly are more healthier in a holistic sense than those who don’t have sex. That would be one point, the other is the inner healing that we talked about earlier. Bringing up sexual power is a speciality of the Taoists. Many ancient images, which are a thousand to two thousand years old, show people holding a peach. They symbolically express that the sexual power has ascended into all their cells, and the peach symbolises longevity, health and inner healing. Research in the area is relatively new, but some say that if one meditates regularly, an inner healing process occurs and a kind of rejuvenation process can happen in the telomeres of the chromosomes, that is, in the area of the cells.

This can happen if one meditates regularly and/or fasts regularly. From my experience especially when heart and libido energy are present in the body and give new impulses into the cells. This as a sexual practice on its own, but also during sexual intercourse when the love and libido energies are working within us. I believe from my experience that the deep practices of Taoist meditations lead to cell rejuvenation. This does not mean that one becomes younger and younger, but that the cells have a chance to regenerate – in this deep stillness of meditation and through the new resources that are released. Because it’s not that you just become still, but a new energy comes in, whereby the cells can enter into cell autophagy, cell self-healing. So the whole body can become healthier. A great thing, isn’t it?

About the author

The sinologist (chinese studies) Carsten Dohnke is today an internationally recognised teacher of Taoism and Qigong. He teaches the mystical path of Tao and gives trainings and seminars in Germany and Holland. He was born in Hamburg in 1963 and began to study martial arts and meditation intensively there at the age of 14. For five years he lived in Taiwan, Thailand and China, studying kungfu with Shaolin masters, Meditation with Buddhist monks and taoist practices.