Buddhism and Hedonism: Reconciling my body and my spirituality

My body and my experiences have never fit into a tidy set of teachings or beliefs, yet my inner world has always been bursting with a sense of the sacred. Sometimes when I’m driving down the back rock roads between cornfields out in the country, I will happen upon an abandoned barn or cemetery, church or one-room schoolhouse. Sometimes I’ll walk out to what has been forgotten by time to sit alone with god for a few stolen moments.

My complicated relationship with spirituality stems from the complicated relationship I’ve had with my body.

I have in my own ways made peace with the fact I was born in a body that would not have survived without numerous major surgeries. I can’t walk without leg braces, I can’t pee without a catheter, and I can’t feel over half my body. Several other people I know who were born with the same birth defect died when we were teenagers or in our early twenties due to medical complications. A plethora of factors are involved that make the effects of my birth defect less severe and I am, in many ways, tremendously lucky.

I remember reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time and being shook to my core when the creation “Adam” questioned his creator and displayed anger. I never knew I was allowed to do that.

Because growing up with a visible disability, I would hear about how I was one of “God’s special children” and was made exactly the way I was supposed to be. That didn’t make any sense to me considering I was a social outcast to my peers and the inflammation in my body, nerve pain, and the vicious fevers from chronic bladder and kidney infections that I lived with on a daily basis made it seem impossible that I was in any way special to god.

But what I didn’t understand at that young age was that other people were not espousing spirituality when they told me those things—there was a complex mix of psychology and sociology at play. Of course, many people meant only the best and were truly concerned or empathetic. But a lot of them simply wanted to use me to feel better about themselves. To be inspired by me or feel in control by praying for me or some other personal motivation. Family and friends who were religious left me with superficial anecdotes about pain and how someday it would all be washed away. So simple. So perfect.

There are deeper teachings regarding pain in Christianity. But I never looked into them because religion was more of a Liberal vs. Conservative game in the lives of the adults around me. Only certain kinds of people go to church, I was taught, and since we are not that kind of people, we don’t go. I never sought out any further spiritual teachings. I was wrongly told spirituality and religion would do nothing to help solve my problems or ease my pain. I felt the shallow comments religious people told me about my disability and life were evidence this was true, so I cut myself off from the spiritual aspect of my psyche.

Fortunately in high school I got a hold of some Buddhist teachings and started reading about Buddhism. For the first time I found a spiritual system that didn’t seek to make simple, feel-good anecdotes out of pain, but centered understanding and accepting pain as fundamental to reaching enlightenment. (It is, of course, more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

I was able to make great strides with issues I had been struggling with for years just by being exposed to some basic teachings in Buddhism.

Now, look, I get it. Some of the worst things humans have done to each other have stemmed from spiritual or religious convictions. Even Buddhists have done horrifying things in the name of Buddhism. We need to talk about that. I’m not saying we can’t reform or discuss or even argue about religion or spirituality. But not at the cost of denying the role spirituality and sacredness plays in our lives and experiences as human beings.

Spirituality isn’t only “just” for people of certain sociopolitical groups. Just like our sexualities—but that’s a whole other post for another day.

And just because other people want to make my spirituality (or disability, or sexuality) about them, I had to learn that it’s not. In order to be happy and have a fulfilled life, I have to own it.

Spirituality and sacredness have always been important themes in my writing. My writing also includes themes of embodiment and sexuality.

But my spirituality includes my body—both the pain and the pleasure that my body experiences. It includes sex and my sexual fantasies. It includes how clothes feel on my body and how my touch can comfort or arouse another person. It includes rest and the amazing way my body heals when I’m sick or hurt.

My spirituality includes becoming the best person I can be and being a positive force to other people around me, even if I don’t know them. I learned a long time ago that when life is good it’s easy to be a good Buddhist. It’s when life sucks and things are unfair and others are cruel to me that I need help to remember to do the right things and keep myself growing and shining.

My spirituality includes death. It does not include a promise of an afterlife. But it does include hope of an afterlife, the connection we all share in our mortality, the vulnerability of grief, the longing for connection with the past, and my efforts to make experiences in my life that bring me closer to all of these things.

My spirituality includes moments I can’t even really articulate. Moments like in the summer after a long evening outside, maybe grilling out, or having a bonfire… I come inside and the air conditioning envelops me and it feels so good. And all of a sudden I’m just overwhelmingly grateful for my home and the things I have in my life. That moment, among a bajillion others, is sacred to me.

Music and food and love and touch. Adventure and sorrow and fear. These are all sacred to me. Hedonistic Buddhist might seem like an oxymoron, but it comes close to describing how I want to live my life.

My spirituality will grow and change, but I’ve decided from now on I won’t let it be silenced. My spirituality is a part of my marriage. My spirituality helps me solve my problems and find meaning in my life. Being open to the universe teaches me lessons and helps me make healthier decisions for my life. My spirituality helps me forgive and helps me strive to empathize with others and helps me through dark times.

My life would be incomplete without sacredness. And I refuse to live an incomplete life. Join me, won’t you?

2 thoughts on “Buddhism and Hedonism: Reconciling my body and my spirituality

  1. This is beautiful, Leandra, thanks for sharing. I have two books to run by you on the topic: first is Living with a Wild God, a spiritual memoir of sorts by noted atheist feminist Barbara Ehrenreich, who was secretly having spiritual experiences as far back as her teens. Don’t read the book, though. Go listen to the interviews she gave about the book, where she goes into much more detail about pre-Christian belief systems and levels of spirit and intuition most people find logically inaccessible today but resonates with some of the joys you describe. Second book: Brad Warner’s sex book. Don’t bother. He put “polyamory” on the cover (to sell copies???), then shrugs it off like 3 chapters in. Just because someone is a Buddhist and a hedonist doesn’t mean anyone should be having sex with them!

    1. Thank you for reading!

      Awesome, I’ll check it out. I also just bought “Open to Desire” by Mark Epstein that is about Buddhism and desire, prominently sexual desire and pleasure. Haven’t read any of it yet but I’m hoping it’s great <3

      That's sad about the Warner book because we need better conversations on all these topics. Hm. Now I want to start compiling a reading list just for Hedonist Buddhists....

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