Sunday, May 29, 2011

Buddhists Talking Sexual Desire

There is an excellent post and discussion about desire going on over at the blog On the Precipice. Specifically, it's tackling sex and sexual desire, which are, for obvious and not so obvious reasons both major stumbling blocks for humans and also gateways to enlightenment.

To open the discussion up further, let's consider a few of the comments made over there first.

Katherine, the post author, writes:

I didn’t consciously choose to abstain from sexual activity. Initially it was more a consequence of environmental choices I made in my life–namely to spend an extended period of time meditating in Burma, and thus observing the eight precepts. After some time learning in the fish bowl of a retreat center exactly what desire is like, when I went back into the world, the five precepts were just kind of a given. And as long as I’m still in training–knowing that old habit patterns can out-muscle wise and skillful alternatives, in the absence of a committed relationship, there would naturally be celibacy. Believing a particular train of thought that ran through my head at one point, and in the fear that I might somehow be suppressing desire (e.g., note the delusion of this post), I experimented once (while firmly in the world, mind you). In the language of addiction recovery, we would say I “slipped”. Not that I hold the precepts with such moral fervor, but let’s face it, I’m just disappointed I can’t say I’ve been celibate for as long the x years and y months as I’d like.

It's interesting to me that she uses the language of addiction recovery because I believe that is both something that offers insight, and also a place of trouble for a lot of folks.

There's no doubt in my mind that sexual activity, even if just done in one's mind in the form of fantasy, can be quite addictive. When sex is approached in an addictive manner, it's all about objectification and sense gratification. Instead of moving closer to your life, you move away from it, all the while believing that you are getting something that previously was "missing" from your life. That's the interesting thing about addictive sexual patterns. They trick the mind into thinking that whatever actions are being done will fill in or settle that pit of uneasiness we all feel at our core. Another, more blunt way to phrase it, might be "This orgasm will be the one that brings endless bliss, and remove the misery." That's the trick. And actually, if you experience the rise and fall of the trick, you actually start to shoot from a view of diminished returns. Instead of believing that the coming orgasm or sexual high will bring endless bliss or even long term bliss, you're "happy" with a short term relief from whatever misery and/or longing is present.

This is very much like substance addiction. The cycle of rising euphoria and then falling into withdrawal is a pattern of diminished returns, but one that your mind continues to buy into because it can't stand to face that uneasy pit.

Let's face it, that uneasy pit is really, when you strip off all the emotional and conceptual stuff, merely the emptiness of self. The moving sands that make up our lives. And since no amount of dumping stuff or experiences into it will make it a fixed whole, we are basically left to face it full on, without flinching. But most of the time, we opt to keep trying to fill the hole.

Going back to addiction languaging, though, I also believe that there is a place of trouble there. Maybe many. For example, one of the underlying premises of many addiction recovery groups is that the only way to heal is to abstain from that which you were addicted to, usually for the rest of your life. Now, even if one doesn't literally apply a "rest of my life" approach to celibacy, it's really easy to get hung up on a belief that you must "perfect" your sexual self before re-entering being a sexually active person.

This perfectionism is something you see amongst some folks in 12 Step groups. A person who has years of sobriety, and has cleaned up their lives in many ways, might spend months or even years feeling shame and guilt about a single "slip" where they drank, or smoked a joint, or what have you. There's something quite puritanical about this in my opinion, even if the person in question really is better off always being sober.

Furthermore, while there are similarities between sexual addictions and substance addictions, the very fact that substances are something chosen to be brought in from the outside makes them different. Sexual energy can arise without any external stimulus, and indeed, is simply part of our being. And while some people choose to be celibate their entire lives, the vast majority of us do not, and so some other approaches are necessary in my view.

In my comments to Katherine's post, I wrote:

The relationship itself might be the vehicle for both of us to break through the dangling chads of craving we might enter into the partnership with.

I firmly believe that people can enter into an intimate, even spiritual partnership with the intention to awaken with each other. Which is different from trying to break through all of one's selfish desires alone. Now, clearly this is high-level relationship stuff, something that probably requires that those involved have burned through some of their attachments and selfish acting out beforehand.

Which leads to this comment, from Ted Meissner, author of the blog The Secular Buddhist:

The nice thing is that this time, the time for intimacy with just this moment rather than with Other, can help us grow in wonderful ways that can make us better partners in the event we do find someone with whom we can share — this moment.

The "this time' he's referring to is the period of celibacy Katherine describes in her post. For me, this points to a synergistic approach whereby one renounces acting on sexual energy and thoughts for a time, and then chooses to return to being active again.

However, I also believe that for some of us, that returning might not be to that final, wonderful powerhouse spiritual partnership. It might be something other, even something that you might be tempted to call a slip up or mistake. But which in the end, actually taught you something you were previously not seeing before.

Following a long term relationship that led to a period of renunciation for me, I had a couple of short flings that basically ended my desire for sex without a deeper commitment. Intellectually I knew the fleeting quality of causal sex, and personally, I hadn't really engaged much in it previously. However, it was the multiple casual experiences over a short time that finalized a break with any interest in it.

On the other hand, there is this comment from Barry Briggs, of the blog Ox Herding:

Over the past five years, with guidance from my teacher, I’ve undertaken an examination of my own sexual impulses, desires, addictions and actions. From one perspective, it’s been rather gruesome. From another perspective, it’s been liberating.

That "gruesome" aspect is one of the main reasons why people don't want to pay much attention to this area of life, choosing instead to either repetitiously act out of habitual, addictive patterns or severely repress desire and/or wallow in guilt and shame about it. I have been in both of those camps, and they are flat out death beds if you ask me.

So, it's a really tricky balance. For example, with the casual sex examples I mentioned above. Someone who is just acting out of their addictiveness could easily claim their actions are all about "learning," while the reality is more about using someone else.

Which is why I really like this point, from Katherine's post:

There’s a lot of ego and, as such, a lot of dukkha–harm to myself, harm to others–involved the moment an interaction heads south of the waist line. Part of that is our own emotional baggage and habits of behavior, part of it is deeply conditioned on a subconscious level from our parents and ancestors. The good news is we can unlearn some of that. We can lighten the load.

Lighten the load. That makes a ton of sense to me. It's a little bit like the peeling the onion metaphor. That you're stripping off layer after layer as you go.

Moving towards naked if you will.

That's where I am aiming to go. How about you?


Katherine said...

Hi and thanks again Nathan, for continuing the conversation. I'd been contemplating a post on desire for a while, but with good reason probably hesitated. It's a touchy subject. All the concerns you raise are good ones, and I hope I don't come across as defensive either in my reply at the other blog or here. But I did want to explain my personal choice of the addiction recovery analogy.

My oldest friend in the world is in active recovery right now, and giving support to him and learning the language of his spiritual practice is a big part of my world at the moment. Also, perhaps it's just by chance, but my abstinence from erotic relationships coincides with my abstinence from alcohol. So it seems there's some sort of relationship there.

The addiction in my case is not to sex, but to an *idea* of what the love relationship is supposed to be. And it is quite undoubtedly, the single biggest source of suffering in my life since being a sexually mature being. So much expectation, clinging, identification associated with that *specific* love relationship. A lot to unlearn, and yes, that can be done in the absence of a relationship as well as in the midst of one. Who knows which approach is better, or if they must work in tandem. I think it's probably a highly individual experience. I would certainly hope, as you argue, that it requires both kinds of practice.

It's interesting that I also came across Jonathan Franzen's piece in the NYT yesterday arguing the merits of the love relationship. Since he's giving the talk to a bunch of graduating college seniors, he says "don't waste your twenties thinking you'll find love in your thirties!" Well, we each have our own time lines I guess.

Nathan said...

Hi Katherine,

I didn't detect any defensiveness here or in your other comments on your post.

"The addiction in my case is not to sex, but to an *idea* of what the love relationship is supposed to be."

Yeah, you know, I started writing my relationship blog last month to explore some of my own hang ups around what love relationships have been and what ideas I still cling to. It's a very tough area for me as well.

I want that powerhouse spiritually driven relationship, but also know that the "wanting" itself is bringing suffering, never mind the suffering tied to specific notions I have that might be unrealistic.

As for alcohol, I think you're on to something there. My alcohol consumption has gone down a lot over the past year, and so, too, I'd say has the level of obsessive thoughts/behaviors around sex and desire. It'll be interesting to hear what you've seen in terms of the links between these two.

Ted Meissner said...

Excellent ongoing discussion, Nathan. This is a challenging topic for everyone, as it's so very hardwired into our very being.

Katherine, the addiction analogy really does make sense, both for physical intimacy and for our conceptualization about relating to others lovingly. How many of us have *not* gone mad for someone, at some point in our lives? Of course we have. And it rarely has anything to do with that person, but rather our ideas about them, about what relationships are "supposed" to be like, and how that impacts our own self image.

You know, that non-existent self!

For me, a particular addiction to the concept about someone led to inevitable and deep depression when that ended quite abruptly. It was, effectively, withdrawal symptoms from the addiction of my conceptualizations about that relationship. And totally based on nothing beyond anything in my own mind.

That realization, fortunately, resulted in a deepening of practice -- my recovery program -- which opened my heart and mind to other possibilities in love and life, and brought me (hopefully!) close to reality, rather than attachment to desire.

Algernon said...

Recently I was considering a post about desire, lust, and sexual activity. Because of a series of life events in May, I have not had time to write it. But there is no need -- excellent posts by Katherine, Barry, and you. Thanks.