I Learned More About Sex When I Gave It Up . . .

Without feeling like the victim of my own lust, I experienced freedom for the first time in my life. 

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

Image Credit: ssuaphotos/Shutterstock.com

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover how to trap mysterious dark matter

A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

Surprising Science
  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
  • Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
  • The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Videos
  • As a stand-up comedian, Pete Holmes knows how words can manipulate audiences — for good and bad.
  • Words aren't just words. They stich together our social fabric, helping establish and maintain relationships.
  • Holmes has a clever linguistic exercise meant to bring you closer to the people around you.