The following is a conversation we had with a seeker, in response to the question, Does being a spiritual seeker mean I have to give up having sex?
You don’t have to give up anything. The spiritual process is about affirmation, not denial, so you get to keep whatever you want. All you give up, or give to God, are the things you don’t want.
That sounds too good to be true.
It’s true nonetheless. Although it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. Being a serious spiritual seeker means taking this process seriously, and that means carefully examining all the stuff you’ve decided you want to keep, to determine that you really do want it, and that you’re not just hanging onto it because you’ve always had it, or because your friends or your family seem to want it so you figure you should too, or whatever. Most of the stuff in our lives fits into those kinds of categories. And that’s not easy to do, for it requires ingredients none of us has enough of; things like patience, commitment, and self-discipline. And you’ve got to scrutinize everything – not just stuff, but your ideas, beliefs, habits, tendencies, your friends, associates, your job, everything. But as you do that – and, remember, this is not something you do just once, but constantly – whenever you come across something that really is important to you, keep it. Keep what you want, and give the rest to God.
It still doesn’t sound that difficult to me.
It’s plenty difficult, and if it doesn’t seem so now, it will soon enough. And the reason is, even the stuff we decide we want to give up, we can’t, because we’re addicted to it. We’re addicted to everything. We’re even addicted to our lives. That’s the only reason the spiritual process is so arduous, sometimes even painful. We’re addicted to the separative personality and everything it represents. That’s why we keep repeating it, over and over again. And just knowing about it is not enough. After all, cigarette packages have been carrying warning labels for years, and folks still smoke. And if you’ve ever tried to give up smoking, or some other drug, or even to diet, you know what I’m talking about.
That, I can understand. I’ve just gone through quitting cigarettes, and even though I wanted to do it, it was awful. I still miss them, and I still think about them fondly, even though I know how bad they were for me, and how awful they made me feel.
I had smoked for a long time, so long they had become a real part of my life. Smoking wasn’t just something I did, it defined me. I literally was a smoker.
That’s exactly it! Now, apply that experience – how you originally felt about cigarettes, the pleasure they gave you, the discomfort they gave you, the decision to give them up, and the struggle to give them up – apply all of that to everything else in your life. You thought you were a smoker; you thought, as you say, that smoking defined you. But now you’ve discovered that smoking was just something you did, and that, after all, it wasn’t your identity. And, if you think about it, you probably started smoking not because it tasted good, or made you feel good, but because someone else’s smoking convinced you it was a good idea.
Both of my parents smoked.
There you are. They were your authority figures. And if they were wrong about that example, however unintentionally, what else might they have been wrong about? That’s what the spiritual path is about: Identifying, and getting rid of, practices and perspectives which make no sense. And in that way, we keep redefining our identity, or who we think we are, and we give the leftovers to God, until one day we discover there’s nothing left, that we’ve given everything to God – but, again, not because we had to, but because we didn’t want the stuff. In return, of course, God gives us Himself. He’s delighted to do so, and would gladly have done so long ago, but with all the junk we had accumulated, there wasn’t room!
What a great image! God standing patiently outside my front door, waiting for me to make room for Him inside, and all I’ve got to do is give Him my junk, and keep giving it to Him, until I realize it’s all junk! That’s really beautiful. But – to get back to sex –
By all means, let’s get back to sex!
I know. As I listen to myself talking with you about this, it must sound like I’m sex-crazed. But it isn’t that way. In fact, I’m hardly sexually active at all. Actually, I’m a very responsible person. Really, I am.
I was kidding. Besides, if you weren’t responsible about this, you wouldn’t be asking the question.
It’s just the idea of saying “Never again” that disturbs me. I wish I could say it, because I feel like I should say it, and maybe even that I can say it. Actually, you know what my problem really is? I’m afraid that as soon as I say it, some wonderful opportunity will arise, and then I’m going to wish that I hadn’t.
In Saint Augustine’s words,1 “Lord, grant me chastity and abstinence, but don’t do it yet!” Look, in that event, remember that you can always undo it. After all, God created the eraser, too. But whatever you decide, don’t force it. Consider it this way: If you give something up to God under duress, like sex, before you’re ready, or against your will, how is it that going to make you feel? What’s your attitude toward God going to be? You’re going to be annoyed, right? Even angry. And so, whatever energy you had been directing toward sex won’t have been transformed into something “spiritual,” as you intended, but instead will remain right where you left it, loitering in your loins.
There’s a fetching image.
Only now, instead of manifesting as a normal, healthy urge, it will be churning itself into anger toward God. And before long, it’ll be anger compounded by guilt, because inevitably you’ll feel guilty about being angry at God, and, on top of that, you’ll feel guilty about the sex you’ll eventually have anyway because you weren’t ready to give it up in the first place. So, when you’re all done, you’re still having sex, only now it’s marred with guilt, and you’re angry at God, and you’re disappointed in yourself. All for what?
You’re right. That’s exactly what would happen.
Okay, so let’s set that idea aside. However, I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression, because you’re absolutely right to have asked this question about sex. Celibacy is important, just as you obviously already suspect, and, in fact, it is ultimately essential and inevitable. Now, that is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong or evil about sex. As God is all there is, this too is God, for there is nothing else it can be. But from the perspective of a seeker, who is trying to see himself or herself in the Natural State, as One with Reality, the problem with sex is that it is an enormous distraction. While compelling esoteric arguments can be and are made against the continued pursuit of sex, as we see it at TZF, the most convincing case is that sex distracts a seeker from his or her search. That said, I repeat that compelled celibacy is not the way. As we’ve seen, it simply creates resentment. To work properly, celibacy has got to come from within, because the kind of celibacy we’re talking about is not the repression of sexual desire. It is the absence of sexual desire. It appears naturally, as a matter of course, and there’s no anger in it.
The urge for sex is just gone?
According to a friend of TZF, when Ramakrishna was asked this very same question, he compared it to a length of rope that has been burned. The ashes remain. They are in the shape of the rope, and they are even reminiscent of the rope. But being ashes, they are essentially powerless. Our own personal experience confirms that. Sometimes, the old thought patterns still arise, but when they do, they have virtually no effect, and are easily released. And if we do follow them, they lead nowhere. Like ashes, they are empty. So, again, it is not self-restraint we’re talking about here. This is really not that, but simply that you don’t live there anymore.
What does that mean, ’You don’t live there anymore’?
Just what it sounds like: You’ve raised your center of attention from it’s residence below your belt, where it’s been ever since it got stuck there the first day of puberty. Look, all we’re talking about here is the exchange of energy. That’s what sex is, right? That’s what all relationship is. Two people come together, and they communicate in some way – by voice or looks or thoughts, or with gestures, or by some sort of physical contact, like sex. Or a combination of those. Whatever goes on between human beings, it’s all about energy, getting it and giving it. Energy back and forth.
Right. I agree.
And these energy exchanges take the form of the neighborhood in which you live, because that’s what you know, and that’s what you like, otherwise you wouldn’t live there. So, just as all life starts in the groin, at the base of the spine, the home of the physical reproductive organs, that too is where each of us starts out. That’s where we begin life, literally and figuratively. But then, over time, as we grow and mature, we naturally move up the spine, into and past various other centers – the solar plexus, the heart, and so on – until finally, we transcend the limitations of bodily personality altogether through the crown, at the top of the head. Naturally, at each level, energy manifests, expresses itself, in whatever form is appropriate to that level. And so, when you’re at any given level, your interests, your relationships, your experiences, your life itself, will be in a form which reflects that level. It’s really pretty simple. And, please don’t forget, all of these levels are God, there being nothing else they can be, so none is better than any other. Just different. There is no judgment here, just awareness.
These levels you’re talking about, they’re the chakras, right?
Yes, chakras. The chakra concept is more complicated than that, I suppose, but this is part of it.
So, in effect what you’re saying is, sex is the medium of communication of the base chakra, the old neighborhood?
Yes, exactly. If you live in the genitals, your interests are naturally going to be mostly about the physical – providing for and protecting the body. The exact form they take will be determined by a lot of variables – things like how and where you were brought up – but all the same, it’ll be pretty much about survival and reproduction. Your motivation will come from there, and you’ll find your rewards there. Your energy exchanges will take place there. Then, in time, you’ll move up from there, and everything will change.
Okay, I get that. But now I’m confused. Do we give this stuff up, or do we move out of the neighborhood?
What’s the difference? You choose to live in a neighborhood because it offers you the things you want. That is, it’s close to where you work and play, and you share the values of the people who live there. As your life situation changes, those things will change, too. Little by little, you find yourself no longer enjoying some of the things you used to do there. Instead of playing on an open lot across the street, now you can afford to join a health club uptown. Instead of unwinding at the corner bar, now you go to the symphony. As the old neighborhood offers you less and less satisfaction, eventually you move to another neighborhood, one which reflects your new interests. So, you give stuff up by moving, or you move because you’ve given stuff up. It’s a little bit of both, I suppose. Don’t forget, we’re talking in metaphors here, so you’ve got to allow a little slack. The thing to get here is that the spiritual process does not have to be about giving things up, but about affirming, and actively seeking, what you really, truly want. To the extent that you consistently, devotedly, consciously target your energy and your focus on that, shape your life around that, a lot of the rest will peel off and drop away pretty much on its own.
Sweetly, it is true, the illuminated mystic may live; but not, as some think, placidly. Enlightenment is a symptom of growth; and growth is a living process, which knows no rest. The spirit, indeed, is invaded by a heavenly peace; but it is the peace, not of idleness, but of ordered activity. “A rest most busy,” in Hilton’s words: a progressive appropriation of the Divine. The urgent push of an indwelling spirit, aspiring to its home in the heart of Reality, is felt more and more, as the invasion of the normal consciousness by the transcendental personality – the growth of the New Man – proceeds towards its term.
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