The hard problem of consciousness is one which continues to dog philosophers and scientists alike. But recently, thinkers have restored to less conventional ways of discussing consciousness. In this article, Sam E. Greenberg explores the mystical effects of BDSM, and how it alters our states of consciousness.
For centuries, cultures across the world have engaged in extreme ritual practices as a means of achieving spiritual and transcendent states. These extreme rituals typically incorporated pain, suffering, intense physical stimulation, or deprivation and played an important cultural role. BDSM - bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism is a modern day practice that bears similarity to extreme rituals practiced across history and cultures. BDSM involves the consensual exchange of power, bondage, or pain usually with the intent to create pleasure or other positive experiences for participants. It is a common misconception that BDSM is always an explicitly sexual practice, an idea resoundingly rejected by practitioners. Rather, BDSM is any activity that involves an intentional and consensual exchange of power and/or pain, humiliation, physical or psychological restraint, or other intense sensations with the intention of experiencing pleasure or desirable sensations.
That BDSM can have a sacred, spiritual, or ritualistic component is commonly accepted in the BDSM community.
A search for the term “spiritual” on Fetlife.com, a popular website for BDSM practitioners, yields 631 related results for groups and forums. BDSM practitioners also widely recognize BDSM’s capacity to facilitate altered states of consciousness. These altered states are known colloquially known as “sub-space” and “top-space.” The term “sub-space” refers to the altered state or states of consciousness experienced by a BDSM “bottom,” someone who is the recipient of pain, humiliation, restraint, or intense sensations within a BDSM interaction. Likewise, the term “top-space” refers to the altered state or states experienced by a BDSM “top,” someone who is the wielder of power or administrator of pain, humiliation, restraint, or intense sensations within a BDSM interaction.
In Easton and Hardy’s The New Bottoming Book, they described sub-space in the following way:
Many bottoms talk about…a kind of altered consciousness in which their relationship with their own minds, with their partners, and/or with the outside world becomes in some way different.
In The New Topping Book, Easton and Hardy described top space as containing elements of empathy, creativity, bigness, nurturing, control, bullying, competence and self-knowledge. They described top space as a “‘contact high,’ the turn-on we feel in empathy with the bottom's response to the physical, emotional and sexual intensity of the scene. One top describes this feeling as getting to surf the bottom's sensations.”
Further proof that BDSM practices can facilitate altered states of consciousness is easy to find. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister conducted research demonstrating masochism to be associated with experiences of transcendence of psychological content through pain and other sensation. He described masochism as “a systematic attempt to eradicate (temporarily) the main features of the self.” Sexuality researcher, James Ambler and colleagues, studied altered states of consciousness experienced during BDSM interactions. Participants were assessed for physiological and psychological indications of altered states of consciousness before and after participating in BDSM interactions, called “scenes” by the BDSM community. These measures assessed for the presence of sexual arousal, states of flow, and transient hypofrontality, the state of downregulation of executive functioning caused by diverted blood flow from the prefrontal cortex of the brain theorized as the neurological mechanism responsible for many altered states of consciousness. Study results indicated that BDSM tops and bottoms both experienced flow states during their scenes, psychological states characterized as entailing full absorption in an activity, loss of self-consciousness, merging of awareness with action, temporal distortion, and a complete sense of agency. BDSM bottoms demonstrated transient hypofrontality, consistent with the hypothesis that BDSM bottoms experience temporary decreases in executive functioning potentially associated with altered states of consciousness during BDSM scenes. Results also indicated decreases in self-reported stress and increases in sexual arousal and relationship closeness from baseline to post-scene for both tops and bottoms. This suspension of the normal cognitive functioning among BDSM bottoms, not in sleep, meditation or psychedelic drug states, but in full waking consciousness, suggests that BDSM practitioners might be experiencing not just themselves but the universe in a different way.
The limited research on BDSM reinforces what has been long understood in the BDSM community: BDSM can enable the entering of a liminal space, one that is not quite trance and not quite waking consciousness. Some BDSM practitioners describe this space as meditative and some describe it as seeing God. Easton and Hardy write, “The unbounded space we enter when we play [practice BDSM] is mythological: a land of archetypes, of mystery, of symbolic enactments…The altered state of consciousness that we can enter into is known by many names: dreamtime, inner space, higher power, the place between worlds.” Easton and Hardy go on to describe the ways spiritual aspects of BDSM are apparent in the ways practitioners set up and clean up their spaces, in chants practitioners say to bless a space before engaging in BDSM, and in the unwritten understandings of how to speak, negotiate, and operate within BDSM spaces which are as well-known and deeply held as the tenets of a religion.
BDSM can have a sacred, spiritual, or ritualistic component
The experiences of seasoned BDSM practitioners, particularly the states of subspace and topspace, demonstrate that routes to altered consciousness are more complex and varied than typically described. BDSM also teaches us that there exists a certain spiritual vacuum or longing to experience altered consciousness, particularly in the West, that is not easily fulfilled by other means. Activities undertaken within BDSM do not appear to otherwise have a prima facie reason for being. There are few reasons for one to voluntarily agree to be bound and beaten, unless there are expected ends beyond the means. In the case of BDSM these expected ends are myriad: pleasure, sexual and otherwise, bonding with partners, the achieving of subjective stress relief, and the experiencing of altered states of consciousness. It is also possible that BDSM represents a conflation of two aspects of the human experience long suppressed in European Christian culture: unrestricted sexuality and direct mystical experience. From this perspective, BDSM could be seen as a ritual enactment of power and control dynamics, and the simultaneous subversion of these same dynamics to reclaim both innate eroticism and access to mystical unitive states.A version of this article was originally published in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, and can be found at:Greenberg, S. E. (2019). Divine kink: A consideration of the evidence for BDSM as spiritual ritual. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 38 (1). https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.24972/ijts.2019.38.1.220