Ajahn Thanasanti explains why practicing celibacy is one of the best ways to experience and understand our sexuality.
If I look at the experiences that have reappeared in my journey, I can see that over the years there have been times of intense pleasure, strong energy, deep pain, suffering, profound fear, transcendent joy and the stillness of a peaceful heart. These experiences have been both the gateway for and the result of much learning. This entire range has also been part of my experience of sexuality, which is the theme I’d like to explore. In particular, I want to discuss the connection between the experience of sexuality with aggression, on the one hand, and loving-kindness on the other. We need to understand both these aspects of sexuality, whether we are celibate or not, as part of our endeavor to awaken to the full human condition.
For more than twenty years most of my dhamma teachers have been men. Occasionally, there have been some very bold, insightful, sensitive dhamma teachers who have talked about sexuality in language that I have been able to relate to and understand. I’ve felt grateful for their courage and compassion in bringing light and clarity into these deep waters. But when I was a laywoman I also heard dhamma talks describing sexuality in ways that I could not relate to; that is, describing sexuality as dominance, objectification and raw attraction to physical attributes driven by a desire for gratification—all devoid of affection and genuine respect.
For me, the most familiar expression of sexuality was one accompanied by tenderness and care, spaciousness, joy, and an opening of body and mind as the sense of self is released through giving and sharing with another. To hear sexuality described emphasizing the instinctual component of desire, the raw drive for physical gratification involving the dynamics of power and aggression, sounded demeaning and foreign. However, years later, I came to realize that what these teachers described was in fact within me.
Growing up in California in the 1960’s and 70’s, with its lack of boundaries and cultural norms regarding courtship and sexual relationships, it took me a while to learn how much care was required to ensure ease and well-being within a relationship. I had to discover for myself the impact of sexual intimacy and the degree to which we internalize our partner’s thoughts, moods, feelings and kammic formations. I discovered it is important to fully bring every aspect of a relationship into consciousness and to be clear about the forces that are operating. It is important to see the nature of desire, the nature of pleasure, the way of attachment and grasping, and the fear of rejection or loss, as well as the effects of these emotions on the mind and body. It is important to recognize that the longing for love, acceptance and fulfillment is part of the human experience and the dance of our sexuality.
After I decided to come to the monastery to live as a nun, I remember there were a few people who said in their parting blessings to me, “Well, I hope that on your way to the monastery, you meet the man of your dreams and fall in love.” I understood what they meant. They wanted me to be happy and, to them, going to the monastery meant choosing a life-denying existence. In our culture, the highest life-affirming experience is the consummation of a romantic relationship. Advertising strategies and movies are oriented toward the pleasure and happiness that come from falling in love and having a romantic relationship. It is considered the pinnacle of fulfillment.
Anybody in a healthy-enough relationship knows that relationships can bring a lot of happiness and pleasure, as well as the potential for healthy inquiry and learning. But anybody in a relationship also knows it is not always so sweet. There can be times when intimacy can be boring. One of the greatest experiences of loneliness is when two people are physically close but miles apart in every other way. Sometimes it becomes very ugly. I recall the story of a person whose unrequited love led to stalking, several acts of vandalism, attempted suicide and physical assault.
So consummate love brings delights, but unfulfilled love, where desire, jealousy and power reign, can become a nightmare and easily turns to hate. This kind of love is one of attachment; it is not genuine love. Attachment and grasping cannot fulfill and, therefore, cause frustration. When there isn’t insight into the frustration as it arises, the aggression that follows is an attempt to blame the trigger rather than understand the response.
In 1989, after ten years as a layperson, I entered the monastery. Not long after, a much loved and respected senior monk said that when he first became a monk his mind was so shattered that it was years before he could get together a healthy case of lust. He was very candid and open about it, which I appreciated very much. In the ensuing years, I was to learn a great deal more about this subject as a monastic.
I thought I knew a few things about my body, energies, and the cycles of mood, emotion and sexuality. I thought I understood men. I was surprised to discover there was a lot I didn’t know about the way energy moves through the body and mind, what it does to various parts of the system and how differently men and women experience things.
In a monastic lifestyle dedicated to meditation, inquiry and investigation, where restraint is cultivated and where there are relatively few opportunities for distraction, one’s energetic system becomes more potent and the familiar becomes intensified. After entering the monastery I began to have an appreciation for what the monks and male dhamma teachers had been saying about the connection between sexuality and aggression. I could feel the power involved in captivating and holding a person’s attention. I could see clearly how fast mood swings and sexual desire were triggered by a myriad of things, not only by an expression of heartfelt openness and tenderness. I could see the desire impulse working and feel the movement of mind toward pleasure and gratification. I could see how the strategies that were employed to optimize pleasure—either for oneself or in a relationship with others—were often based on control, manipulation, competition, objectification and the desire to define one’s territory.
As these dynamics became clearer to me, the connection between sexuality and aggression became more apparent. A human being is made out of energy. Thoughts, moods and feelings are all manifestations of energy that change in color and tone depending on the characteristics it takes on. We are often absorbed by these characteristics in the same way that we are absorbed in the objects of our experience. What we think, feel and experience is of great interest. When there is intense energy in the system it can flow out in different ways. For example, sexual energy that manifests as desire, if unskillfully restrained or suppressed, can cause confusion, frustration and anger, and can easily be released as aggression.
Therefore, working with restraint requires that one become familiar with the experience of these feelings and the skillful means one can develop to work with them. Awareness is the key—you first need to allow your attention to rest with the experience. Feel the physical sensations directly in the body: the tightness, increased warmth, change in the texture of the breath. Let your attention rest there. Feel the unpleasantness, the mind contracting, and notice the desire not to experience these feelings. When you can see things as they arise and let your attention rest there, you need not be a slave to your aversions or your desire for fulfillment. You can be aware of the experience as it arises and watch as it changes and ends of its own accord, or is channeled through skillful sublimation. Once there is mindfulness and a clear comprehension of what is being experienced, options open up.
The energy doesn’t have to be blocked or forced. One can allow it to flow through awareness, with attention focused on the whole body or the breath. It is important to know the difference between repression, which doesn’t allow the energy to flow, and sublimation, which allows the energy to move through skillful channeling.
By bringing awareness and attention to the breath, release comes from exhalation and vitality from inhalation. When the whole body is kept in mind, energy can flow and become a source of vitality, creativity and radiance. Energy can be released or sublimated through the breath, physical work, long walks or devotional practice. It is important to recognize how much patience, skill and kindness toward oneself is needed to find one’s way through this predicament. Humor helps a lot, but sometimes tears are inevitable.
Even as one becomes more skillful at allowing energy to flow throughout the system, it is necessary to see that ultimately when there is desire, there is suffering—there is “me” here who wants and something out there that is supposed to satisfy. It is important to recognize whether one is sublimating in a skillful way and working to transform desire into something useful. There is suffering as long as there is a “me” here and something out there that we either need to grasp or get rid of.
Sexuality and the way aggression is experienced and expressed need to be understood in order to open up the field of one’s experience, and come to terms with what it is to be fully human. It’s scary because it takes people into a realm where they feel out of control and where they are confronting things about themselves that aren’t congruent with what they think they should be experiencing.
Some people think meditation is about developing clarity, concentration and kindness, and is divorced from coming to terms with primordial energies like sexuality and aggression. Understanding these energies, seeing what sets them off, what brings them into balance, how much they are part and parcel of having a human body and how they can be used once transformed, is important in our aspiration for freedom. Rejecting any aspect of what it is to be alive and to be a human being can be profoundly destructive and affect the way we see and relate to others and ourselves; it has a direct connection to our physical and mental well-being.
Many people go on a retreat and often the big question when the retreat is over is, How do I integrate the insights I’ve gained and bring the spiritual practice into my daily life? It is very unfortunate if someone feels that practice on retreat is holy and sacred and that practice at home is inferior, complicated or impossible. There is no such split.
As for celibacy, it isn’t meant to be a repression or denial of one’s sexual being, nor a condemnation of sexuality or of sexual relationships. It is not a life-denying experience. The standards of behavior are clear: our pathway is through insight and understanding, and for me, love. When lived to its full potential, celibacy is a vital, embracing and creative lifestyle in which one is aware of sexuality in all of its manifestations and aware of the way it can be transformed into other types of energy. With celibacy, one is at ease with life as a human being.
To those interested in understanding the end of suffering, the Buddha recommended seeing the value of celibacy. It is a powerful tool for understanding desire and coming to terms with the nature of attachment. It isn’t an easy path, but it can be very helpful because one has to consciously face the habitual patterns of this deep-seated energy.
If we want to free the heart from suffering, we need to question our relationship with sexuality in a sincere and genuine way. We need to have the courage to look carefully at the way desire, attachment and power are embedded within our experience. We must see for ourselves what is appropriate and how mindfulness, understanding and restraint can be further cultivated. We must ask ourselves if there is room for more honesty and integrity.
Each of us has issues that are more difficult to resolve than others and we need to know what they are. I grew up in an environment where being hostile and aggressive wasn’t O.K. Coming to terms with these aspects in myself has been difficult because they were not congruent with my view of being a loving, giving and caring person. When there is a lack of familiarity with the energy of anger, it gets screened through thoughts like, “I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to know about it, I don’t want to deal with it, I don’t want it to be there.” Sometimes the thoughts aren’t conscious and one suppresses the unacceptable form of energy until one has the courage and strength of mind to wake up to these energies and embrace them. Then when anger comes it is familiar and no longer terrifies, nor is it used against oneself or others. It doesn’t have to go underground.
So what does this have to do with compassion and loving-kindness? Classically it is taught that we first need to have loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves before we are in any position to spread it outwardly. Awareness has an all-embracing quality—whatever the experience, awareness can embrace, know and receive it. Judgment isn’t needed; resistance isn’t needed. As moods, feelings, bodily sensations, tensions and struggles are held in awareness, the reactive qualities of wanting and not wanting the experience diminish. Compassion comes from opening to suffering with the right perspective. It is not the all-glorious compassion of loving a million people in a distant land. It is the nitty-gritty compassion of being at ease with the things that we experience, whether or not they are to our liking. True loving-kindness isn’t the construction of a thought or a feeling. It is the ability to be present with experience on a moment-to-moment basis with awareness—loving-kindness is awareness.
It is important to see that within all experience there is a direct path to the stillness of the heart. Be it rage or the coarsest desire for gratification, within each there is a direct path to the stillness of the heart. A profound change takes place when there is sufficient strength of mind to let awareness embrace the feeling, without either rejecting it or believing it, and without becoming absorbed in it. The identification with experience we normally have eases up. We no longer need to get something, get rid of something or change our experience in some way in order to find peace, fulfillment and rest; by simply resting in the awareness of the experience, peace, fulfillment and rest are found.
This still, loving heart isn’t a lovey-dovey, sweet, marshmallow smear one spreads all over the universe—metta not is a kind of goo. This still, loving heart is real; it is connected and appropriate. This arises when we understand the appropriate actions of body and speech and feel at ease with the full range of what it is to be a human being. As long as one remains cut off from sexuality or aggression, one is denied full access to the heart. Cut off doesn’t mean an inability to act out; it means an inability to fully feel and understand the energy, and to allow it to flow and transform. It seems to me that spiritual maturity is when we can see through the veils of the world, the great range of our human experiences, and let everything bring us back to the stillness of the loving heart.
My experience is that the heart does open. Energy that used to be expressed in a sexual or aggressive way still manifests through the heart but is not colored with the desire for gratification, possession or control. The heart is just open—it’s allowing, it’s receptive and it’s universal. There is no focus on the one that “I” love or the one that pleases “me.” It is a bit like loving the whole universe rather than an individual person; it’s not the glittery kind of being in love that rejects things that don’t fit. It’s abiding in love—a still, alive, vital place, a place of rest.
There was a nun whom we all loved very much who spent some time at Amaravati. I remember her saying that she felt much more sexually liberated being a nun than she ever did as a layperson. I understand what she was talking about. Within a clearly defined boundary of restraint, we have the encouragement, teachings and support to let the body be the way it is, to allow the energies to be the way they are, to understand them and be at peace with them.
We’re not trying to get anybody’s attention. We’re not trying to dominate or control. We’re not trying to live up to the culturally accepted norm of what a woman or a man should be. We are given the encouragement to know what it is to be alive, to be a human being, to be a woman, to be a man, and to know it fully and completely—not so much so that we can take this as our identity, but so that this knowing can take us to the stillness of a loving and peaceful heart. One of the many blessings of this celibate life is that one doesn’t need to be tied up like a pretzel. One can be fully human, utterly alive, and be in peace.
Sexuality is a rich subject. I don’t know if I’ve managed to do it justice or to speak to your experience. You decide. My willingness to be candid is largely motivated by the suffering and insight I’ve experienced over the years and by the suffering of others and their need to understand. We can, whether celibate or not, bring awareness, integrity and kindness to this aspect of our lives. If there are things I’ve said that you find useful, use them. If not, leave them with me. I wish for everyone what I wish for myself: that the practice bears the fruit of awakening to the full human condition, allowing suffering to end and the awareness of everything we experience be the still point of our resting in a peaceful, loving heart—a heart whose freedom is unconditioned.