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The Intimate Achievement

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A husband has affair after affair; a wife still toys with a past lover. A celibate wants to live a sexual life; a married person wants to make chastity part of the relationship.

Author Thomas Moore wades into such murky pools on his latest expedition. By now we know him, the explorer who hunts for the lost civilization of the soul and writes book after book from the found artifacts. “Care of the Soul” (HarperCollins, 1992) made him famous. “Soul Mates” (HarperCollins, 1994) broadened his audience, and now “The Soul of Sex” (HarperCollins) could make him a household name. Think of this one as a sex manual for those who already know the mechanics, commonly described in the most clinical terms. Sex is flirtation, foreplay, penetration. None of these is on Moore’s list. He writes of desire, intimacy, pleasure, the body, sensuousness, beauty.

“It’s the difference between taking sex seriously and taking it literally,” he said during a recent tour across the country. “You can be sexually active five times a day and these qualities of intimacy can still be nonexistent. That’s when you’re taking sex literally.”

That voice, mellow as Christmas port, is familiar to his followers. Along with books, he now has about a dozen books on audiotape. The looks follow. He has the understanding eyes and soft features that seem made to order for his work as a psychotherapist. He lives in New England with his wife and two children and continues in private practice.

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The doctor has been in for a day or so at a time in one city after another from New York to California. On the phone from Seattle, he described the view from his hotel window. There was the cement office building and the freeway. Call it overcompensation for the sterile view, his immediate reaction was that a sexy life makes for a good sex life.

“We tend to eliminate anything erotic from our work environment,” he began, tacking toward his point. He talks as he writes, in spirals.

“Look at our buildings: They’re cold. In other countries, the buildings are so sensual you want to go up and touch them. If you’re comfortable with your own sexuality, you can bring that sensuousness to work. We eliminate anything erotic from our work environment. Our office buildings are clinical.

“Roads can be very sexy.” He sometimes drives the Merritt Parkway that winds through green hills from New York to Connecticut and thinks of it in unique ways. “It has curves. It’s like a body. Most roads are just links to someplace else, built to let us go fast. There’s no intimacy. That’s not sexy.”

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Listening to Moore, it sounds as though we worry too much about the material side of attraction. Clothes, shoes, cars, hair, muscles, makeup. He scrapes them off, looking for simpler, more natural things underneath.

“We don’t have sex woven into our lives yet,” he says. “If we’d spend some time cooking, eating, being at home with family and friends, appreciating children and nature, we’d be on our way to a joyous sex life.

“If you’re spending your days in a job that’s killing you and you eat your meals apart, not together, you won’t spend your nights very well.”

A Thomas Moore guide to the techniques of lovemaking hints at ‘90s counterculture. None of his tips are meant to be practiced in a mirror. He writes about moral sex and the power of celibacy, and the place for chastity in a sexual life.

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“I was in a religious community for 12 years,” he recalled of his time as a Benedictine monk, starting at age 13. He left cloistered life in the mid-1960s. “I took a vow of celibacy but never felt I was denying my sexuality. Later, when I moved into a different kind of sexual life as a married man, I didn’t feel that now I was sexual and before I wasn’t.

“We’re afraid of celibacy; we think there’s something weird about it. I have friends who are without a partner. They live very sensuous lives filled with desires and struggles. They haven’t abandoned their sexuality. It permeates their lives.

“Even in marriage, to be apart for a time can be a very healthy thing. Abstaining from sex can serve a marriage. At times, you might feel a need to be with yourself, to get away from sex for a while. It can be an aggressive act against a partner, but a mature person can tell the difference.”

He doesn’t write about infidelity, sex outside marriage, gay unions or sex scandals--even the obvious ones that smolder in public. He refers, instead, to conversations with his patients, which tell him most people make mistakes in their sexual relationships and have some regrets. Was it too much sex for one lifetime, or too little? Homoerotic relationships, physically violent sex, jealous love, passive, angry sex? All the same to him, in one sense.

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“I think we need to be able to say, ‘This is the way it was, but it’s the past,’ ” Moore suggested. “What you did in your 20s you might not believe you did by the time you reach your 40s.”

And after that?

“Sex always represents so much more than itself,” he said. A person is really looking for something else. What, is hard to say. You won’t know until you allow yourself to look deeper. Find out what sex represents to you.

“For one thing, it stimulates vitality. Maybe that’s what is missing in a life. Maybe the other person has a quality in their life that you would like in your own. Whatever else, sexual desires point to a change in the status quo. A renewal of our lives.”

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Open-ended logic is Moore’s way of avoiding a reputation as a moralist. “Good people hold good principles, bad hold bad. Right and wrong are obvious, and the good always choose right. That’s a superficial notion of what ‘moral’ means,” he said. “It’s a way of trying to find one answer that is right for everybody.

“A moral approach to life is different. You develop a way of imagining the world, of looking at it. You might not always be so sure of what is good and bad, but you’ve probably lived fully and learned a lot. To be moral in marriage is to know yourself, your past mistakes, know that you’ve botched it like most people and be able to forgive yourself.

“Bring self-forgiveness to a marriage and you won’t be so judgmental of your partner.”

In all his books about soul, Moore sometimes comes across as a man who speaks a foreign language--all but forgotten yet vaguely familiar. Maybe it is his years of traditional religious training or his frequent return to the ancient and Renaissance worlds as reference points that strikes a chord. When he writes about Hollywood goddess Marilyn Monroe, he compares her to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. One copied the other’s goddess poses for photographs and showed the modern world how to be intelligent about sex from inside, not outside, the sexual realm.

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Would he describe her as a chaste woman? Probably, by his definition.

“The sexuality around us tends to be crude,” said Moore, who is amazed how often he hears people use vulgar terms for sex.

“A chaste person thinks twice before using such words. And does it when it will have some power. We’ve lost touch with the sublime side of sex. In mass culture, we tend to look to the slime, not the sublime.”

It does contradict every billboard image of American values that Moore writes to the broadest audience, uses such words as “sacred” and “holy” about life and, in this case, about sex, and still climbs his way to bestseller lists.

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What is sacred about sex, for him, is that it takes us out of our everyday world the way a good retreat, or meditation, would. It takes us out of ourselves.

What makes it holy is that we find our soul by surrendering ourselves and making ourselves available to another.

“Sex is not separate from the rest of life,” Moore said. “If we give ourselves in a sexual way, to our marriage partner, maybe we can be more generous in the rest of our lives.”


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