What is the condition of the mind before wanting arises? It is actually quite okay, isn’t it? The mind that is not disturbed by wanting anything at all is peaceful. It is when wanting arises that we feel the itch, but if we scratch the itch straight-away–gratifying the desire immediately without stopping to investigate–we won’t notice how irritating desire can be.
When we are ruled by desire, we fail to see what it really is. Desire is, in reality, simply a movement in consciousness–a wave upon an ocean.–Ajahn Munindo in “What is renunciation?”
Yes indeed, the most peaceful moments are always ones in which there is no wanting or resisting. And, I can say with confidence that I have learned more about the nature of sense desire in renunciation, and in particular celibacy, than all the rest of my life lived…otherwise. I didn’t consciously choose to abstain from sexual activity. Initially it was more a consequence of environmental choices I made in my life–namely to spend an extended period of time meditating in Burma, and thus observing the eight precepts. After some time learning in the fish bowl of a retreat center exactly what desire is like, when I went back into the world, the five precepts were just kind of a given. And as long as I’m still in training–knowing that old habit patterns can out-muscle wise and skillful alternatives, in the absence of a committed relationship, there would naturally be celibacy. Believing a particular train of thought that ran through my head at one point, and in the fear that I might somehow be suppressing desire (e.g., note the delusion of this post), I experimented once (while firmly in the world, mind you). In the language of addiction recovery, we would say I “slipped”. Not that I hold the precepts with such moral fervor, but let’s face it, I’m just disappointed I can’t say I’ve been celibate for as long the x years and y months as I’d like.
Since taking some time off from the normal hormone-induced dating and mating games, a specific insight I’ve had is that while chemistry may be very real, our ideas about the desired person or object, and how we believe it will satisfy the wanting, most definitely are not.
When the thought “I want this” comes up, can it simply be seen? Desire can be seen, and in that seeing there is no desire.–Toni Packer in “Attraction”
Would you believe it’s as simple as that? Would you think that was even a “desirable” outcome of practice? Certainly desire is not a moral issue in and of itself; it’s a very real human emotion or movement in consciousness–whatever you’d like to call it–and it’s going to happen however awake we might be. But the thing is, we are so often slaves to desire. We’re not just aware of desire happening. We enthusiastically believe all the thoughts around a desired object. And our relationships to others and to material things are horribly distorted as a result. When it comes to sex in particular, we may have physical urges due to biological wiring which wants us to reproduce, but does that mean we act on it whenever we see someone that attracts us? No, thank goodness. In an act of renunciation, say, not taking meals after noon, we are taking only that which we need, and we are also allowing desire to come into the clear light. It is only through providing space around an urge or want that we can fully see its effects in the heart, body and mind. And honestly, just as an itch that goes unscratched, it is more uncomfortable than anything else. It’s temporary. And it always is. And if we just go ahead and satisfy it all the time, we don’t really learn that. Nor do we learn how much suffering it can entail if it goes unchecked.
In fact, when we automatically act on urges, we often add fuel to the fire. When there is strong sensual desire, thoughts often become obsessive in nature, the body may become highly charged energetically, and we will likely be spending a lot of time swinging back and forth on a pendulum of greed and aversion. So much energy gets drained by an object the mind can’t drop. I remember a time when this was particularly evident–I thought specifically of the lustful beginnings of a romantic relationship, the “I can’t stand a moment without you!” period, and thought for the first time, “No thanks.” At the same time, I know it’s not the desire itself, but the holding on that is so painful. And whatever it is that lies between the two–desire and holding on–the causal link often remains a mystery. No matter how much I’ve taken the time to just be with the dukkha of desire, it still confounds me!
Then there’s also the hard-wired biological aspects of romantic desire in particular. When I am on long retreat, I virtually always feel sexual attraction at some point. It’s lasted for different periods of time, and has led to varying kinds of insights. Generally speaking, there’s a subconscious review of necessary criteria: Serious Dhamma practitioner? Check. Right age range (and that’s pretty large)? Check. Shared language? Check. (Or not.) Chemistry? Check. Even if thoughts aren’t proliferating about the person and future scenarios, the body just takes over. There’s this motion in place, like “Go! Go! Go!”, as if the body’s only purpose is to make babies and if it sees the slightest supportive conditions…It’s laughable and yet, I sometimes actually think what a curse it is to be young and fertile.
Let me just say, the classical vipassana romance is nowhere near as dangerous as the one that can appear in the kind of retreat environment where you can actually talk with the person you’re crushing on. Overwhelming sense desire. E.v.e.r.y. time you pass by the damn person. Even though this “agony” remains a familiar experience, it’s more fun than it used to be. And I can just say, “Oh look, there’s that again!” It doesn’t spin off into fairy tales as easily and there are increasingly longer periods of respite between the desire-laden moments of consciousness.
I know how badly we all want sex (or even polyamory, see also) to just be okay. Ideally, two mature sexual partners would be totally aware and present and there would be mad unconditional love energy being shared with no remainder (no clinging, no thoughts of the next time, no me or mine). But…I’m not sure that’s every been my actual experience. There’s a lot of ego and, as such, a lot of dukkha–harm to myself, harm to others–involved the moment an interaction heads south of the waist line. Part of that is our own emotional baggage and habits of behavior, part of it is deeply conditioned on a subconscious level from our parents and ancestors. The good news is we can unlearn some of that. We can lighten the load. I’ve now spent two years alone, and I would hope that the insights I’ve gained through retreat, through renunciation, through celibacy, will allow me to engage in a wholly new experience of the love relationship, of real intimacy with another. Where once there was an urgency to be partnered, there is a softness, a slight opening. Where once there was frequent jealousy of perceived threats, there is so much less identification of things being “mine”. Where once there was blind reactivity, there is significantly more thoughtful reflection. Where once there was a desire to be desired, there is now only an itty bit if any at all. Instead of wanting to be desired (for “my” intelligence, for “my” body, for “my” kindness even), I would hope that anyone I would consider slipping back into a looser third precept for is someone interested in being a mirror and being mirrored. In engaging in partnership precisely for spiritual development … And if that’s just not in the cards, that’s good too. More love to spread. Less distraction.
And the wonderful thing is, in the end, whatever may be, if you stay with the experience and you’re seeing clearly, then:
Desire is a gift; it’s about noticing. Everything happens for you, not to you.–Byron Katie
I know this is a very personal subject but I’d be interested to hear other perspectives working with sensual desire in various contexts. For all my arguments of authenticity, please feel free to share anonymously if you’re more comfortable.
A few more words on the third precept, “abstaining from sexual misconduct”, which changes to complete abstinence for monastics and lay people who are observing the training precepts…
Ajahn Thanasanti, “Celibacy and the Awareness of Sexuality”, Buddhadharma, Fall 2003
José Cabezón, “Rethinking Buddhism and Sex”, Buddhadharma, Summer 2009
And some sage words on desire
@Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (UPDATE 7/4/2011)