BDSM and...Buddhism? | Crooked Media
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July 24, 2020
Unholier Than Thou
BDSM and...Buddhism?

In This Episode

This week, Phill talks to Soma Snakeoil, a Buddhism teacher and a professional dominatrix. Together, they chat about the intrinsic link between the sexual and the spiritual—and what happens when we are allowed to show up as our full, freaky selves to our faith.

 

 

Transcript

 

Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. When many people think of Buddhism, they think of passive pacifists who practice meditation. So maybe you’ll be surprised by today’s guest who’s here to talk a little bit about Buddhism and a little bit about BDSM. Soma is an artist, activist and a fierce advocate for sex workers, people struggling with addiction, and people who are houseless. She’s also taught as a Buddhist teacher at Against the Stream Meditation Center, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles. And finally, she’s worked as a professional BDSM dominatrix for the last 15 years. If that last part sounds a little at odds to you with the rest, you may be surprised to hear just how harmoniously it works in s’s life. Here’s just a little taste of her magic.

 

[overlapping clips of Soma] Is it soft? Is it rough? Is it restricted? What’s here? What do you notice? What do you notice about the breath? What we do is intrinsically risky and to pretend that it’s not risky is Irresponsible. What if this was your last breath? As a dominant, were responsible for the bodies of our submissives.

 

Phillip Picardi: So first Soma, I’d love to start with your origins of faith. I understand that you left Christianity. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

 

Soma: Yeah, I left Christianity when I was about 17, 18 years old. And it was a really big deal because I came from a very Christian family. My parents were actually Christian missionaries, as well as my uncle was as well. And I, you know, I went to church and read the Bible and I prayed every day and I actually at one point intended on becoming a Christian worker or leader or missionary myself. So I was very devoted to this. And um, but, you know, when I left the church or Christianity, it was, you know, it was a culmination of many different, you know, it was a very difficult and painful thing. And, you know, it’s like when you leave something behind that is sort of takes up every aspect of your life, you know—I talk about it sometimes as having like a God-sized hole? You know, and it’s sort of like, well, what do you do when you have a God-sized hole in your life? You look for something else. So, I mean, for me, you know, at first I found punk rock, and that was such a big sort of awakening for me, was finding punk rock music and culture. And then after that, it was really finding sexuality and feminism and learning to be embodied, and really finding Madonna.

 

Phillip Picardi: Madonna?!

 

Soma: Yeah. [laughs]

 

Phillip Picardi: I’m glad to hear she was part of your spiritual awakening, too.

 

Soma: Well, I’m glad that we share that. So, yeah, I mean, Madonna. Yeah. There’s like this big moment for me when I was about 18 years old and I was watching Truth or Dare. And, you know, it’s just like the way that she moved and she was so embodied and, you know, even just the way that she would look at the camera, you know, like she knew that she was being filmed and she knew how to, she knew how to use her sensuality, sort of like in such an empowered way. And I really wanted that.

 

Phillip Picardi: And so Madonna somehow gave way into Buddhism, is that correct?

 

Soma: I mean, that’s interesting. I mean, many, many years later. Sure.

 

Phillip Picardi: But first, you felt like you had to understand your sexuality in your own embodiment and then Buddhism came. Is that how that goes?

 

Soma: Slowly along that path. I mean, you know, there’s a whole lot of suffering along the way. You know, in some ways it’s like Buddhism, Buddhism saved my life.

 

Phillip Picardi: What do you mean by that?

 

Soma: When I started practicing Buddhism very seriously, I was very, very sick, both emotionally and physically. And I was desperate and, you know, I’d even tried to commit suicide and was in very deep in addiction and had lost so much around me. And, you know, I had experienced a lot of abuse and trauma and had hurt other people. In sort of Buddhist circles is this idea, you know, that the Buddha taught was that there’s so much suffering in life, and that there, that suffering can be relieved, or that there is an end to suffering. And, you know, that was really what brought me to this practice was because I was absolutely suffering.

 

Phillip Picardi: So how did Buddhism help alleviate some of that suffering? How did it give you a new perspective on your life?

 

Soma: Well, it was a slow process. But, you know, one of the things that is so incredibly powerful and beautiful about the Buddhist practice is that you learn that you actually can sit through anything. That you can turn towards very, very painful experiences and you can face them and in the process of facing painful things that come up, that you can heal it. There’s also this aspect of, you know, just when you sit down and you close your eyes things slow down and there’s, it’s just so intense being human, right? Like we know that right now, in the midst of everything that’s going on right now.

 

Phillip Picardi: This may be hard for you to answer, but I just wonder, it sounds like when you first encountered Buddhism, you were in a tumultuous relationship with the self. And I can’t think of anything that I would be less likely to do when I’m at my lowest point than to sit down, stop everything and close my eyes, you know? So, I mean, for lack of a better expression, what brought you to be able to even get to your knees at that point? What was the catalyst for you to find and be receptive to this kind of spiritual awakening?

 

Soma: I was already on my knees. At some point, life already pushes you to your knees and you’re already facing yourself. You know, sometimes, you know, I was already having this experience of every time I looked in the mirror, I, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. All of the memories and the guilt and shame and the traumas and the hurt and the resentments and blaming of the other people—and some of it with just cause, you know? The hurt, right, when you are, when you’re already in sort of the mess, you already know what’s there. So I think closing your eyes, even though it hurts, that’s actually offering yourself a breath of fresh air.

 

Phillip Picardi: I’m wondering where along this journey you discovered the practice of BDSM and practicing as a dominatrix. Where those things, were they happening in tandem? Do you feel like, or did one come kind of after the other, or was one informed by the other?

 

Soma: Well, I think that I was born kinky, first of all.

 

Phillip Picardi: Hard same.

 

Soma: And, you know, that sort of evolved throughout my life. And, you know, it’s sort of like when I was a very young person sort of getting my boyfriend’s to cross-dress, and not really knowing what that was. And then, you know, trying to understand, you know, like what’s polyamory and, oh, what is it to be a queer woman and, you know, like all of these different things. And then later understanding that, you know, that BDSM is this wide spectrum and, you know, there’s all of these different aspects to it. And it’s like you can’t necessarily pin it down. I do remember, you know, like taking it pro, when I took it pro, and I started doing foot sessions and I was doing foot sessions on Craigslist back in the day.

 

Phillip Picardi: What is a foot session, just for the people who don’t, who may not know?

 

Soma: So this is when someone comes and they kiss your feet and they suck on your toes and they might like, so it might be that they like your feet in stockings or they might like your feet in heels, or they might like dirty feet or they might like stinky feet or they might like clean feet or they might like red toenails or, you know, it’s very particular, but it is based around having a fetish for feet. You know, this was so many years ago and, you know, it’s at some point along the way, it really clicked for me how much I liked doing this and how much I like doing it in a transactional manner. You know, it made a lot of sense to me. And I had this one particular session where one of the gentlemen said, will you slap my face? And it just like, it was just like a lightning bolt for me because it was so exciting. And I said, yes! Of course I will! And then he said, Will you spit on me? And that was really fun, too! So that was like when it started to transition from just doing foot sessions into more of a BDSM, you know, a dominance aspect to what I was doing.

 

Phillip Picardi: I mean, I think that there are a lot of misconceptions and obviously a lot of sensationalism around BDSM, so I’m just wondering, can you explain what a BDSM or a dominatrix dynamic is like, and maybe even like what’s something that you wish that more people knew about this practice?

 

Soma: You know, one of the big things that I think is super important to understand is that it doesn’t come from anger. And, you know, sometimes I’ll even hear younger dominatrixes or people that want to be a dom say something like, oh, well, this is great, because then I’ll be able to work out all my anger towards men. And if that’s what you’re looking for, then you should actually go to therapy, because that’s not what we do. What we’re doing is a consensual experience between adults where we negotiate between two or more people and it’s something that should be enriching and nourishing and pleasurable for both of the people involved, or however many people are involved. And it’s you know, it’s something that is based in very deep trust and respect. And if there isn’t trust and respect, then it just doesn’t work, you know? And then some of the activities that we do, do involve pain or risky situations. And if there isn’t trust and a whole lot of negotiation and communication involved, then someone could actually get hurt or harmed in a way that is not pleasurable.

 

Phillip Picardi: So that makes a lot of sense to me and I’m glad that you said that, because on the face value of this episode, I wanted to make sure that we’re not sensationalizing you or your work. Right? I want to make sure that we’re coming from a place of just respect and understanding of what you do. And I think that helps all of us who are listening understand. And, you know, at face value, obviously, one could say that your Buddhism and your practice as a dominatrix are at opposite ends of some sort of imagined binary, right? We have Buddhism who believes in pacifism and doing no harm. We have BDSM, which is a, largely can have something to do with dynamics of pain, play and subjugation. I’m just wondering, how do you explain the reconciliation of that? How do you explain how you exist on those two planes, and how they commingle?

 

Soma: Well, I think there’s a lot to that. First of all, I think power is fluid. And I think that is a big part of Buddhism is power exchange. You know, and I, you know, as a dominant, I actually really love power, but I don’t want to take it from anyone. I want it to be given to me by someone who decides of their own free will to gift it to me in acts of service or worship, because it makes them feel good. That to me is a gift. And, you know, there’s something that we say in Buddhism that, you know, there’s actually a part of what we call the precepts and these are sort of like almost like ethical guiding principles. And one of the things that we say is we only take what is freely offered. And so for me, that’s very much aligned with BDSM practice around consent and around power. And you know, some of the other aspects that I see that are so important, you know, sort of the connection between BDSM and Buddhism are, you know, BDSM encourages people to face the pain and relax into it, you know, and sort of let go of what is unnecessary. And, you know, I see a lot of intersection between meditation and bondage, you know, and we actually see that there’s been scientific research that bondage can, that it actually calms anxiety. And what it does in the brain is very similar to what happens in the brain in meditation. And it’s kind of similar to what’s happening with when I can’t make the choice to move, then I’m just going to relax into it and let go. And there’s something similar to what’s happening in the body when you’re just sitting in Vapassina practice and you just relax and let go into that posture. So to me, they’re actually, and even though it seems like they’re very different, there’s actually a lot of alignment.

 

Phillip Picardi: We’re going to take a break. We’ll be right back.

 

[ad break]

 

Phillip Picardi: OK, let’s get back to my conversation with Soma.

 

Phillip Picardi: It’s interesting, though, because you’ve essentially, you know, what I understand and please correct me if I’m wrong, but what I understand is that you’ve found a way to make Buddhism work for you in a way that Christianity maybe couldn’t. Is that a fair read?

 

Soma: I think so. That’s probably a fair read.

 

Phillip Picardi: Tell me why you’re hesitant to agree? [laughs]

 

Soma: You know, I, that’s funny. I just never thought of it that way.

 

Phillip Picardi: I just think it’s an interesting way to blend, or to find a way to accommodate both sexuality and spirituality, to not segment these things so specifically in our lives. And I find that to be, you know, something really admirable if I’m being, if I’m being honest. And I’m just wondering on that note, like I think you mentioned earlier, that Buddhism is a part of your BDSM practice or your practice as a dominatrix, is that right?

 

Soma: It is a part of my practice. And, you know, I believe if your spirituality is really very deep, then it will permeate every part of your life. You know, there’s no part of your life that will be left out.

 

Phillip Picardi: So how does that manifest itself, if you don’t mind my asking?

 

Soma: You know, it’s always evolving. There’s always new things that I’m learning. And then so I might I might drop something and try something and then and change it. But, you know, at some different parts of my practice, I’ve done, you know, sort of very ancient meditation practices that I’ve mixed with bondage, you know, so at some points I’ve been doing, in Buddhism, we do particular meditations, like we’ll even do corpse meditations and that’s sort of focusing on the awareness that at some point we will die. This helps us be very aware of the preciousness of life and be sort of more alive now. And I’ve combined that with very heavy bondage and sensory deprivation so it’s almost like you’re wrapped up like a mummy or, you know, so it’s like having the experience of really going close to death and so, you know, that can really bring you when you come out of it into this like, wow, let me treat today as the best day ever and go forward into this week and like seize the day. It’s really kind of exciting to blend some of these different practices and see what comes of it, you know, because it really, I think that spirituality and sexuality beautifully, intrinsically, can be aligned.

 

Phillip Picardi: Mmm. So in other words, you very much do feel like there is room within this spirituality or the spiritual practice to be freely and openly sexual, and to, and almost that it encourages you to explore those desires of of the body of the spirit.

 

Soma: Yeah. I mean for me, you know, I want to get laid. I want to fuck, you know? And I hope that lots of people have pleasure with their body. And, you know, I think we’re actually unhealthy if we don’t allow ourselves pleasure. And I think that there’s actually a part of us that doesn’t know how to have pleasure and feels guilty around certain areas of wanting. And that’s the part of ourselves that has to learn how to ask, what do I actually want? And that goes back to those conversations around consent. You know, we have to first know what do I want, before we can share that with someone else. It’s OK to want. It’s OK to have sex. It’s OK to have a good meal. You know, this is part of having a beautiful life. In Buddhism, we talk about 10,000 joys and 10,000, you know? We don’t need to give up pleasure. We need to give up suffering.

 

Phillip Picardi: That is a beautiful and succinct way of putting it. And I hear that, and I feel that deep inside of me in all of the canals that orifices of my body—that wasn’t so well said. Do you think that there are people who are Buddhist who may be listening to this podcast, hearing you say this, and who may be horrified at your interpretation of Buddhism?

 

Soma: Oh, absolutely.

 

Phillip Picardi: What do you say to them?

 

Soma: You know, I would say, you know, what is it that is so disturbing, if it is disturbing you? I mean, this is a path of radical revolution and it’s OK to be disturbed. It’s OK to question. It’s OK to inquire. This, dharma doesn’t have to look one way. It’s not a ‘one size fit all’ thing for all of us. And I think that liberation can be sexual liberation.

 

Phillip Picardi: And likewise, right. Sexual liberation can be spiritual liberation.

 

Soma: Absolutely.

 

Phillip Picardi: That’s kind of, I mean, if we can I think the best place to end here is, I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t know where my path will take me. You know, much like you, I am an ex-Christian and I have spent a lot of my adult life and even my adolescent life unlearning the stigma that was against my sexuality. And I don’t just mean my homosexuality, but I mean expressing sexual desires, or having a sexual appetite, or wanting things and articulating a want for things that may be considered deviant or outside of the norm, right? And how to how to reteach myself or rewire myself to think positively about those things and be gentle with myself about that journey. And it is a very hard thing. And so—

 

Soma: Yeah.

 

Soma: I just want to congratulate you and thank you for for sharing so openly all of that. But I’m wondering if you have any advice for people who are are still struggling to articulate those things and still struggling to find out how one can be a spiritual person and a kinky person, or a spiritual person and just a sexual person? What do you offer them? What words or prayers or wisdom do you offer them?

 

Soma: I would say that you are your own best guide. You know, you can really learn so much from other people, but it’s so important to go inside and do some deep inquiry to really know yourself. The more that you know yourself, the more that you can connect deeply and intimately with others. And that’s challenging. And it’s OK that it’s challenging. You know, it’s like you were just saying a minute ago, like be gentle with yourself. It’s hard. We, you know, like, I think the biggest secret that when I learned this, I was just like, oh?! None of us have this figured out?!

 

Phillip Picardi: Right!

 

Soma: We’re make, we’re all making this up?!

 

Phillip Picardi: Yes. And also that, like you can be, you can exist in one area of interest at on point of your life and then another point of your life completely evolve out of it. Like tastes come and go?

 

Soma: Absolutely.

 

Phillip Picardi: We don’t wear the same type of clothes for our whole life—god forbid! That would be tragic. So why should we have the exact same sexual preferences our whole life, you know?

 

Soma: Mm hmm. Totally.

 

Phillip Picardi: It just feels like you’re limiting yourself from, or maybe not. Right? I don’t want to be judgmental, do whatever makes you happy. But of course you know the idea that we can be expansive in so many ways and bar sexuality from that, right, is, it does seem silly now that you’re articulating it this way.

 

Soma: Yeah.

 

Phillip Picardi: Well, thank you so much for for joining me and for such an enlightening conversation. It definitely has given me a lot to think about while I meditate. Hopefully I don’t get too distracted.

 

Soma: Thank you so much. And thank you so much for what you’re doing. It’s so important. I really appreciate your voice and you taking the time to have me here with you today.

 

Phillip Picardi: Thank you.

 

Phillip Picardi: I was so excited to speak with Soma about the intersection of the sexual and the spiritual, something that would most likely have horrified all of my Catholic school teachers growing up. But more importantly, I’m excited by the possibility she represents that it’s possible for us to show up to a spiritual practice, to church, to temple, to wherever, as fully-formed, fulfilled sexual beings. That we don’t have to feel dirty or deviant for what we do as consenting adults with our bodies. That sexual pleasure can very well be a form of nourishing our spirit. You don’t have to be a kink practitioner or dominatrix to know that enjoying sex can be liberating. It can be a setting where we feel embodied, cared for and loved. It makes me think that divorcing the spiritual from the sexual may rob us of another opportunity to transcend. But there’s another thing I’ve been thinking a lot about, and that’s how Soma talked about embodiment itself, how Buddhism, through meditation and breath work, allowed her to go deeper into her body, how her acknowledging and tapping into the physical, then allowed her to face and heal her pain. In Christianity, I was taught that our flesh is the bad thing, the original sin, the very thing that makes us unclean. But in so many other forms of religion, we are called to be grateful for our bodies and acknowledge their miracles and their limits, in order to eventually go deeper. And the last thing, and I love this the most, is that just like so many of this podcast’s other guests, Soma found a way to make her faith work for her. As we think about all of this, I also hope that we can change our language, stigma, and conversations around sex work. Sex workers are deserving of our respect and appreciation, and they also deserve fair wages, equality and protection under the law. Most recently, the passage of SESTA/FOSTA forced a lot of sex workers to take their businesses offline again, thus bringing them back to the streets and jeopardizing their safety. For all of our renewed conversations around labor justice and police abolition, we seem to conveniently leave out the sex workers in our society, thus allowing them to be exploited and potentially abused or killed. To learn more about how to support efforts to decriminalize sex work and why we should do so, visit decrimny dot org. That’s d e c r i m n y dot org. If you’re able, please make a donation.

 

Unholier Than Thou as a Crooked Media production. Our producers are Adriana Cargill and Elisa Gutierrez, with production support from Alison Falzetta and Lyra Smith. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa, and our executive producer is Sarah Geismer. Thanks for listening.