The best way to learn about sex is to give it up for a while . . .
Thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I was a serious spiritual seeker. I’m married now, but during that time I had a number of committed relationships, and when I wasn’t in a relationship, I had flings. Being young and healthy, I was endlessly attracted by the sexual allure of beautiful women. And because I was also a committed meditator, I was becoming more and more aware of the many different ways, both gross and subtle, in which I experienced a profound lack of freedom in relationship to the arising of sexual desire. Over time, I came to recognize that the sexual impulse, once awakened, has a mind of its own. At times I found myself almost feeling used by the force of nature for its own ends. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the ride. It’s just that it was dawning on me how little control I really had over this overwhelming biological instinct. I didn’t have a problem with sex per se, but I felt more and more uncomfortable realizing how little freedom I experienced in relationship to it. Like so many men, when I felt the itch, the only obvious response was to scratch. The erotic imagery that was pouring through my mind, when seen in light of my growing meditative awareness, made me feel more like a conditioned robot than a freely choosing sexual being.
During this same period, I was also reading about great Eastern enlightened masters who were proclaiming the enormous spiritual benefits of sexual abstinence. While I had no intention of becoming a monk or a lifetime renunciate, I became more and more curious to find out what they were speaking about. When my lover at the time and I broke up, I decided to take the plunge. And please keep in mind, I was not living in some monastery high up in the mountains. I was living in the heart of contemporary culture, with all its inherent stimulations—sexual and otherwise—the Big Apple. One day followed another. One week followed another. One month followed another. And suddenly I found myself six months into the wild adventure of celibacy.
I can still remember the dumbfounded look on a friend’s face when I told him that I’d made it through half a year without having even one orgasm and I was still alive and well! He obviously thought I was mad and couldn’t relate in any way, shape, or form to what I was talking about. I can’t tell you how happy this made me—not happy that I wasn’t having sex, but happy that I no longer felt like such a victim of my own lust. I experienced freedom for the first time in my life in relationship to the most overwhelming force in the universe. And it was so sweet.
In this experience I saw clearly that my access to happiness, joy, and lightness of being was not dependent upon the regular experience of sexual intimacy. This was nothing short of a religious revelation and it was so, so liberating. “You mean that in order to be truly happy, deeply happy one doesn’t have to be with anyone or have anyone?” No, not really! Wow . . . Many men feel that if they don’t have sex or regularly experience an orgasm that they’re going to die. Maybe not literally die, but close to it. It’s an irrational, biological fear that our culture stokes on a daily basis. That this is not in fact true may sound obvious to some of you, but at a semi-conscious level, I truly believe it’s not that obvious to most men. So to know that we don’t need orgasms to be happy or to feel free is a truly enormous and liberating discovery. It certainly was for me.
After maintaining the practice of celibacy for almost three years, I started to notice a shift in myself. It seemed as if the lesson had been learned and that my position of abstinence was becoming inauthentic. So when I met a beautiful Chinese woman who was an acquaintance of my brother’s, it was just a matter of weeks before we became lovers. Sex was the same as before—but it was also different. After my “fast” I noticed a freedom in my consciousness that had not been there before. I didn’t feel like a sexual robot living out someone else’s fantasies. It also was refreshingly simple, sweet, and human.
I learned more about sex during that three-year period than I have before or since. I know beyond any doubt that my own inner freedom and happiness are not dependent upon the presence of another human being or on any particular biological experience. If we know we don’t need each other in the desperate ways in which we often imagine we do, it changes the romantic and sexual dynamic that we share culturally in dramatic ways. If we can let go of the false promises of the sexual and romantic impulse, when we do come together, we will be able to do so from a much deeper place in ourselves.
Join Andrew Cohen for a free virtual dialogue on June 2nd with integral philosopher Ken Wilber exploring sex and sexual ethics. Register here.
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