Sex, Death & Enlightenment: A True Story
Mark Matousek
Riverhead Books: New York, 1996.
288 pp., $22.95 (cloth). 

When I first saw the title Sex, Death and Enlightenment, I thought the author had to be kidding. The hottest topics of the ’90s together in one book? But Mark Matousek isn’t kidding, even if he employs a witty, hip awareness to tell the story of his spiritual search, a search that started on a sunny Jamaican beach when he noticed a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion on his ex-lover’s foot.

Though it was on John’s foot and not mine, I knew without question that the virus was in me. There was almost nothing I hadn’t done. I’m one of the lucky people who remembers what sex was like in 1975, perhaps the last time in history of human intercourse when semen was a prize, not a poison, a secret, salty swap of the very thing that made you a man.

Matousek describes his beginnings in an out-of-control family in L.A., his promiscuous adolescence, his life in Manhattan as an Andy Warhol minion and a part of the beautiful people scene. For Matousek, the catalyst for change was not simply the fear of suffering and death, but the urge to find a meaning in his life and death. As the PWA (Person With Aids) Zen Buddhist Dean Reynolds tells him, “This is the fast track to enlightenment, honey.”

Mark Matousek.
Mark Matousek.

Matousek is unusual in his willingness to shed the cynical, protected nature of the fast-track glitterati and make himself available to the teachings wherever he finds them, be it in the offices of Interview magazine (where he worked as an editor), darshan in a tiny German village, a warm beach in South India, remembering the shabby Los Angeles of his childhood, a cold room in Ladakh, hospital rooms, hospices, and Elaine’s. The mark of a promising spiritual journey is precisely this openness, this ability to learn from others. He is guided by the intellectually brilliant mentor/would-be lover “Alexander”; by Mother Meera, the Indian holy woman of Thalheim; by his middle-aged, middle-class friend Carol; by Pushpa, a woman who was his guide in Bangalore; and by the people he interviews for his magazine work: Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and, most impressively, Stephen Levine.

As he journeys, Matousek experiences unusual states of mind: the buzzing in the ears and altered sensations of light familiar to many meditators, as well as visions, and auditory and olfactory sensations. After much study and struggle, sitting on a beach in South India, a breaking wave triggers a glimpse into the nature of things:

. . . it wasn’t me breathing, but me being breathed by the air around me, the palms, the waves. Everything was being breathed by that same breath that made the web by which these bodies were joined.

Afterward, he realizes he knows nothing of the mystery of existence, but that “a process was taking place in me.” He returns to Manhattan and has moments of seeing more clearly, “as if my eyes had been pried open a couple of degrees.”

Returning to ordinary life, finding work, caring for Carol (who contracts AIDS), Matousek leads us through the maturing of his spiritual insight. He volunteers in a hospice and struggles with celibacy. He searches for a spiritual practice center, giving us a hilarious tour through the various teachings and their quirks: Zen, Vipassana, Yoga, Twelve Steps, and Louise Hay.

Throughout, Matousek is down-to-earth, flirtatiously raunchy at times (describing a temple in the sunset as a “dark, erect nipple”), and it is this quality that makes the book such a pleasure to read. He doesn’t want to become, in his words, “some kind of Shirley MacLaine woo-woo or God-I’m-gonna-die convert.” Instead, he asks questions and tells us what he sees and hears. At times, the dialogue seems stilted, but Matousek’s own voice bears witness to his maturing insight:

No more divine, no more God, no more spirit, no more other, I thought, only this, here now, in all this splendid, factual nature, including those worlds I could not see. What could all this be but divine? I asked myself. What could I have imagined this earth to be but a wholly splendid miracle? I saw how deluded I’d been not to see what was right in front of my eyes: that all things in creation were holy, even the ugly, violent, and incomprehensible. What had once appeared to me as a loose jumble of separate things now seemed to come together as one presence.

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