I evolved from a passionate young man into a renunciate. I grew into celibacy. Many who walk the contemplative path arrive at this waypoint. I had ventured down the path of romance many times and had been waylaid and dispossessed of my illusions.
I took the road less traveled. It led to freedom. To discipline the body's appetites takes discipline and strength. I covet strength and power over my mind more than indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh.
Chastity is a difficult path and one of the most challenging disciplines to accept. Christ recognized this in a discourse to his disciples on celibacy:
"Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only to those to whom it has been given... Some are celibate because they have made themselves that way to obtain the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it." (Matthew 19:12)
Before taking this path, I followed the 14th Mindfulness Training as advocated by the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: True Love
[For lay members]: Aware that sexual desire is not love and that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a deep long-term commitment made known to our family and friends. Seeing that body and mind are not separate from each other, we are committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of our sexual energy and to cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness for our own happiness and the happiness of others. We must be aware of future suffering that may be caused by sexual relations. We know that to preserve the happiness of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. We will treat our bodies with compassion and respect. We are determined to look deeply into the Four Nutriments and learn ways to preserve and channel our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will regularly meditate upon their future environment.
I observed this vow with many of the women I dated- at least superficially. But these superficial relationships invariably ended in suffering. So, I decided to try an experiment and take discipline to the next level after my ex-wife chose divorce.
The vow taken by monastics goes further:
Aware that the deep aspiration of a monk or a nun can only be realized when he or she wholly leaves behind the bonds of sensual love, we are committed to practicing chastity and to helping others protect themselves. We are aware that loneliness and suffering cannot be alleviated through a sexual relationship, but through practicing loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness. We know that a sexual relationship will destroy our monastic life, will prevent us from realizing our ideal of serving living beings, and will harm others. We will learn appropriate ways to take care of our sexual energy. We are determined not to suppress or mistreat our body, or look upon our body as only an instrument, but will learn to handle our body with compassion and respect. We will look deeply into the Four Nutriments [edible food, the food of sense impressions, the food of volition, the food of consciousness] in order to preserve and channel our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal.
My goal was not to realize the bodhisattva ideal nor enlightenment, but self-discovery and self-mastery. For me, desire was the most challenging habit to conquer. Tempered might be the better word, as I have not completely extinguished desire from my heart. Like a recovering alcoholic who recognizes he is just a drink away from relapse and addiction, I approach desire with humility.
History is replete with stories of outwardly powerful men who lost their positions because they lacked mastery over their passions. Scandals and accusations involving princes, presidents, CEOs, politicians, media moguls, beloved entertainers, pop icons and others in positions of power are common. Neither are the holy nor enlightened exempted from controversy- from Catholic priests and Baptist ministers to Zen Masters and Tibetan lineage holders. Among the disgraced were authors on enlightenment and ultimate truths. Many "enlightened" spiritual masters, too, lacked mastery over their own lusts and came undone. Some renowned yogis could slow their heartbeat or body temperature and fast for weeks, but they could not discipline their sexual appetites.
Sexual misconduct and abuse often causes generational harm and suffering. Allegations are often ignored in cases involving powerful "spiritual" leaders. Victims are often traumatized and feel shame, self-hatred, and isolated. The harm extends out to families, friends, and partners. Some victims go on to abuse others in turn.
Craving is the root cause of so much suffering. And of all the energies, sexual energy- what Walt Whitman called the procreant urge of the world- is the most powerful.
Christ recognized the root cause of desire- our undisciplined thoughts. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)
Christ's teachings are humbling. Allowing the mind to indulge in fantasy undermines right action. Christ understood this. I have disciplined the body, but have not yet disciplined the mind to this degree.
"The thalamus [the part of the reality-making process of the brain] makes no distinction between inner and outer realities, and thus, any idea, if contemplated long enough, will take on a semblance of reality … The concept begins to feel more attainable and real, and this is the first step in motivating other parts of the brain to take deliberate action in the world. (Batchu, 2013)
This mechanisms can be used for good or for mischief.
When temptations arise, the brain, having rehearsed and visualized multiple simulations, acts out what was first imagined in fantasy. This is what Christ warned against- 2000 years before television, magazines, advertising, pornography, and the internet.
Thich Nhat Hanh explained it this way: “When we read a magazine, we consume. When we watch a television program, we consume. Whatever we consume affects our body and mind. If we consume toxic magazine articles, movies, or video games, they will feed our craving, our anger, and our fear.”
Every script writer, fashion designer, romance novelist, advertiser, music video producer, video game designer, and marketer knows that sex sells and many exploit this vulnerability. The market is saturated with sexual imagery. And we've become numb to it. Soft porn has become so normalized that the risqué pinups of the 1940s seem ho-hum today.
Pornography use among young men is especially concerning. Dr. Gregory Jantz and Michael Gurian write that “by the time a boy is eighteen, he has seen approximately one million images of sex and violence on screen. We would be naïve to believe these images don’t impact his relationship with his world.” As tolerance develops, the brain seeks more intense stimulation. As with drugs, consumers of pornography develop a tolerance and seek out even more intense experiences. Pornographic content encourages deviance (Delmonico & Griffin, 2008; Quayle, 2008). Those convicted of pedophilia, rape, and other sexual offenses from exhibitionism to solicitation of prostitution often cite pornography as the beginning of their slide into vice.
Visualization, however, can also be used to disarm desire. Buddhists leverage the power of visualization to weaken lustful thoughts. When lustful thoughts arise, monks are encouraged to visualize the object of their desire with revulsion. If the pinup model above glances his way, for example, a monk can visualize her rotting corpse or imagine any scenario he might find undesirable- contracting a sexually transmitted disease, divorce (the pin-up girl had 3), losing half of his assets, alimony and child support payments, the lack of freedom a marriage sentence can be, disgusting odors, losing his peace or forfeiting his happiness to a nagging wife.
The painting below ("The Death of a Noble Lady" by Kusozu) illustrates the stages of decomposition. Monks contemplate the stages of decay and reflect on the impermanence of all things- beauty, lust, the body itself.
Unwanted sexual thoughts arise in the minds of monks and laymen, nuns and women. Suppressing or rejecting these thoughts often strengthens them. We can create new associations when these thoughts arise. Instead of sexual desire, I can turn that into a desire for liberation from lustful thoughts or extend a desire that others might be free from suffering.
Sublimation is one technique monks use. Redirected sexual energy can be transformed into true power. Testosterone is one of the hormones that regulates our sex drive. Use it to build a stronger body, to pursue advanced studies, to grow the mind, to train the spirit. A monk redirects it to gain penetrative concentration in meditation.
Crushing it in business, conquering a mountain, or running an ultra marathon are impressive achievements. For me, self-mastery is like this. Perhaps it is greater- both because motivation is internal and because the opponents (Nature, culture, ego & desire) are so powerful. Motivation is 100% internal. I can't Instagram my success over my own undisciplined mind, so there is no social proof to encourage me on. There are no trophies or accolades for conquering one's own weaknesses. That which is in me must be greater than the power which destroys men.
And it is not lust only we war against, but "principalities and powers."
I came across a piece on NPR which implied that indulging in weakness was good for a man: Masturbation abstinence is popular online. Doctors and therapists are worried.
Which therapists and doctors?
The author writes: "The term "nofap" has come to encompass a set of unproven claims that not masturbating confers social and health benefits."
Unproven? Her claims are uninformed.
Ejaculation is associated with the sympathetic response- a kind of stress response. Masturbation induced orgasms increased blood pressure, heart rate, plasma catecholamines and prolactin. Prolactin blunts dopamine release and testosterone (Kruger, 2005). Elevated prolactin levels can contribute to erectile dysfunction (Al Chalabi, 2023).
Acute abstinence, by contrast, does produce elevated levels of testosterone in males (Exton, 2001). Masturbation may have a potential effect on free testosterone concentrations (Androl, 2021). While the research remains controversial, there are other benefits to abstinence.
The author quibbles with non-clinicians use of the word addiction. While ogling at porn twice a month may not be addiction, if a man tells himself he will stop but cannot, he is not his own master. He undermines his resolve. The anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC) is the seat of tenacity. There are no studies on the effects of masturbation on the volume of the aMCC, but I would hypothesize that men who refrained from masturbation would show greater volume in the aMCC than men who indulged in the practice. Where is the seat of self-respect or pride? I imagine that structure or network would be stronger, more robust, or larger in men who choose abstinence.
Again, this is not a path for every man. We are wired for love and connection. "Coiled in shells of loneliness, " the poet Maya Angelou wrote, we wait "for Love to liberate us into life." One team of researchers identified "primary, discrete, interrelated emotion-motivation systems" related to what we call love and lust (Fisher at el, 2002). "Each emotion-motivation system is associated with a specific constellation of neural correlates and a distinct behavioral repertoire," researchers wrote. One system is linked with the dopaminergic pathway and its neural architecture, one with the serotonergic pathway and its neural architecture, one with the testosterone system, and one with the estrogen system.
The dopaminergic system is associated with curiosity, motivation, and pleasure-seeking. The neurotransmiter dopamine plays a key role in keeping love alive. Dopamine motivates us to seek out our partner. According to this model, people who express more of the traits associated with this system are curious, creative, and more likely to take risks. They tend to be more optimistic, energetic, spontaneous, mentally flexible, inquisitive, and generous. They tend to have little interest in rules, schedules, or controlling others.
People who express more of the traits associated with the serotonergic system tend to be calm, affable, and people oriented. They enjoy networking. Duty and loyalty are highly valued. They are cautious but not fearful. They think concretely. They are not impulsive with money, actions, or feelings. Security, structure, and order are core needs. They tend to uphold social norms. Many are traditional and tend to have a strong moral code. They don't get bored easily, which enables them to be methodical, hardworking, and dependable.
People who express more of the traits associated with testosterone tend to excel at analytical and strategic thinking. They can be direct, decisive, exacting and tough minded. They are often competitive, skeptical, and emotionally contained. They approach dating and relationships the same way they approach their other interests, by rationally analyzing their hopes, needs and intentions. They prefer “rule-based systems” and have an aptitude for math, mechanics, computers, engineering and/or music. They seek partners who share their goals and tend to gravitate to those who weigh alternatives, listen actively, handle conflicts deftly and are emotionally expressive.
People who express more of the traits associated with estrogen are skilled at handling people. They intuit what others are thinking and feeling. They artfully read facial expressions, postures, gestures, and tone of voice, so can be introspective and self-analytical. They take pleasure in delving into the strengths and weaknesses of relationships (Fisher, 2007).
Each system activates different regions of the brain in different ways. What we experience as desire and love, for example, activates complimentary parts of the same brain region. Neuroimaging studies have found a correlation between activation in the anterior insula and love, and a correlation between activation in the posterior insula and lust (Cacioppo et al., 2013). Desire and love also recruit different aspects of the striatum. The ventral striatum responds to pleasure and is intensely activated by desire. The dorsal aspect mediates reward expectation (Cacioppo et al., 2012).
At the experiential level, activation of the insula from the back (posterior) to front (anterior) pattern, feels like progression from desire to love. Love grows out of the pleasure we experience cooking together, dancing, hugging, holding hands, kissing, caressing, or intimacy. Neuroimaging studies have shown pulses of dopamine lighting up the nucleus accumbens when we hold our partner's hand.
For the monk, romantic love is impermanent and illusory. The dopamine highs wear off, and couples, missing the intensity, begin to question and doubt... or stray and cheat. Expectations are often not indexed to reality. We feel frustrated and disillusioned when we were expecting "happily ever after." The brain returns a dopamine error response. The habenula downregulates dopamine. At the experiential level, it feels like frustration, dissatisfaction, worry over the health of the relationship and may express as, " I don't feel like I used to;" "Is there something wrong?" "The magic is gone;" "Does he/she still love me?"
Managing our expectations and taking responsibility for our well-being, it is possible to develop a more stable love predicated on kindness, compassion, connection, friendship, and respect. But that is merely speculative for me at this point.
This post is NOT an invitation to celibacy. This path is difficult! I can't say how long I will walk it. Nor is this post advocating Puritanism. Sex is not an impure act. Loving relationships make us more human. In the yogic Tantras, sexual union with a lover is a path to bliss and insight. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, karmamudra- practiced with a lover- is one of the 4 paths to enlightenment.
But I practice the meditative techniques of mahamudra which led me to celibacy. By abstaining, moreover, I use that powerful energy for the inner work that needs doing. This work is an expression of self-compassion, self-respect, and love.
First published Oct 8, 2020; republished May 28, 2022