Ethics 8: Brahmacharya
I’m just back from a five-day silent retreat in Northern Ontario. I reconnected with a community that has grown in silence, that has felt how silence can be so healing, creating space around the knots in our lives, the difficult relationships. But it seems to me that there’s many different kinds of silences. Some silences are consoling and clarifying, while others are unhealing and unhelpful.There are many people or parts of our society that have been silenced, I’m thinking about the way the Japanese were interned in Canada during the second world war. This war on our own citizens was barely mentioned in newspapers of the time. Silence has so often been used as a political weapon, as a method of containing dissent, of maintaining the dividing line between wanted and unwanted. When we turn to look at the precept of brahmacharya, the wise use of sexual energy, we are once again straddling a line between what is kept silent and what can be spoken of.
Healing silence and non-healing silence. Most of us haven’t really spent a lot of our lives being quiet, so when we start to enter the space of a retreat, for example, silence can be quite threatening. For some people silence arrives as a relief because they experience social interaction as pressure. But after the first couple of days, when people get used to being in silence in social situations, they start to notice the way that within silence they can see the parts of themselves that have been silenced, and the parts of themselves that just can’t be quiet.
The theme of the retreat was forgiveness. In the Christian and Jewish traditions to experience forgiveness means surrendering to God. This theme kept coming back over and over to me, because to really experience forgiveness in the Abrahamic traditions you have to give yourself over to something much larger than yourself which is usually articulated as God. God is who forgives you. In the language of forgiving, you are not quite in the mix. That’s a contemporary reformulation of forgiveness. In the Yoga and Buddhist traditions we don’t really have a model of God, though I think forgiveness works the same way. I think we can replace the word God with silence. This means that forgiveness happens outside of us. In meditation practice we drop deeper and deeper into what I experience as spaciousness, which is contained by silence and then forgiveness and softening and gentleness starts to happen in our own minds and hearts. In a certain way that’s the place where silence really starts working on us, where we’re actually opening up to the spaciousness of silence, and feeling as if we’re being held in it. And then I think we also start to see that even if there are places that we are trying to silence, when it’s time, they will start to emerge into consciousness. When you’re deeply practicing, can you notice that whatever has been compartmentalized, whatever’s been silenced, pushed down and unable to have breathing space, starts to come up of its own accord when you’re ready?
Another aspect of the retreat is the interview, where at some point during the retreat you’re asked to sit outside the room, and reflect on what’s actually happening in your sitting experience, and then to come in and meet the teacher. My job is to prepare before the student comes into the room, to feel the silence and spaciousness of the room and what’s coming up in myself, not knowing who is going to walk into the room next, not knowing what’s going to come out of their mouth. And then somebody comes into the room and I really like to think that the authority in that situation is silence. We don’t know what’s going to show up, we don’t know what we’re going to say, we don’t know how we’re going to meet each other or if we’re going to meet each other. And then we come out of the meditative experience of going deep into silence and we let the silence start to speak, which means acting with words. Some people have a really hard time with this part of the retreat because they have the idea that a meditation retreat is about maintaining a stiff silence. The beautiful thing about the form of meditation practice in a retreat is that you’re asked to drop into a place of silence, and then from that place of silence what needs to emerge will emerge. The invitation during the interview is to communicate whatever has emerged. So there’s a dialectic happening, where on the one hand we’re dropping into this place that is beneath language, and then out of that place new patterns of language show up. New images show up. Or really old images show up. And then we’re asked to express that.
Bernie Glassman describes this as plunging into not-knowing, bearing witness, and then out of that place of bearing witness without knowing, loving action naturally arises. This turn from silence into a social space of language is loving action. Or it can be. When I interview people, I try my best to remind them that the interview is only ten or fifteen minutes long, so that the whole practice of not-knowing, bearing witness and loving action has to happen immediately. A lot of people just sit there in silence for a really long time and I’ll say, “We have ten minutes.” In other words, we can’t rehearse. How do you really show up and say what’s going on? There’s no need to be clever, or say what you think I might need to hear, all that is really a ghost world, grabbing at things for our identity. And then to notice that also. A student might say, “What’s coming up for me now is a lot of pain.” Maybe I’ll say something about that so they can drop deeper into the pain. But maybe I’ll just leave it and ask what else is happening. There’s a trust in emerging together that we can hold the silence enough so that we can be natural. A very deep part of practice is this ability to be able to drop into that space of silence, to have enough courage to drop into what’s there, which touches the parts of ourselves that have been silenced, and then articulating them. And then to have someone point out to us if maybe we haven’t fully absorbed what has happened in that silent space. Which happens all the time.
I remember when I started working as a psychotherapist, I had somebody come in who had been raped in quite a traumatic way when she was young. She was such a wonderful person, she was then in her early 30s, and these forbidden memories returned when she was on a vipassana retreat. Somebody knew that I was interested in vipassana and psychotherapy so they referred her to me. When we started working she didn’t ever want to talk about what the memory was, she only wanted to say that something had happened. I became increasingly aware that we were talking about the fact that this memory came up on retreat, but the content and the memory itself didn’t make it into the room. One day, when I stopped asking her about it, she started speaking a little bit about what had happened to her. Her face flushed and I could feel a lot of sexual energy in the room. And as I started to feel this sexual energy, she stopped talking. It was very confusing to me, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. We were entering a place where she was about to talk about this traumatic situation, but I could see in her body language and I could feel in my own body, an increase in arousal. So I went to see Philip, my supervisor, a wonderful man in his seventies. He said you really have to open up to the sexual energy that’s in the room. In psychoanalysis this is called projective identification. We talk about projection like: you might project something onto me. But if there’s something in you that’s really hard to feel, you don’t project it onto me, you project it into me. So that I’ll feel what you can’t feel. You know when you’re talking to someone who has had a big loss, only they’re smiling while you’re crying? You’re feeling what they can’t actually feel. Phillip said that maybe the reason she can’t speak is that she’s threatened by the fact that there was some part of this traumatic event that was actually arousing. She might have a story in her mind that this was rape, this was trauma, I’m a victim.
But there’s a competing story that contains an arousing element, so she has to stay silent because it doesn’t fit her primary story. The competing story is what we were both feeling in the room. This was at the edge of my skill set, as a young person, as a man being in a room with a woman, and so I took a real risk and said to her, “When you start speaking I’m really feeling a lot of sexual energy in my body and in the room.” Her face became very red and she said, “Me too.” And then she started crying, and described the event for the first time. We never actually talked about the arousal, we never needed to. It just needed to be acknowledged, and with the smallest nod towards it, the sexual energy between us dissipated, and as it did tears came for both of us. She just needed this little corner of the story opened up and she couldn’t do it in herself. My job was to assist her to hold or contain the many feelings around this story.
Sexual energy is tricky because we have these top down stories about how it should be managed in our life. I think this is an important story because it reminds us that sometimes sexual energy doesn’t appear the way we think it’s supposed to appear. It also shows us that sometimes there’s a story we have about how sexual energy, where and when it can show up, and where and when it can be acknowledged. The nice thing about letting sexual energy arise in relationship, is that if there’s enough trust, it can just be acknowledged so that it can be in the room, even if someone can’t have it in their heart yet.
Because of my Jewish background, when I consider the wise use of sexual energy, when I hear the word yamas or restraints, sometimes it can be difficult not to instantly conjure up courtrooms of the accused, the necessary relationship between desire and the law. That there are codes of conduct dividing the right way from wrong. But in the Yoga and Buddhist worlds, we are less interested in adherence to eternal laws, than the question of practice. We go even further than the practice of the wise use of sexual energy. We become the wise use of sexual energy. What does that mean? I’ll give you an example from meditation retreats because that’s a place where it shows up a lot. Someone is sitting for day after night, and maybe there’s a certain pattern that the breath touches where it starts bringing up sexual energy. It’s great to see sexual energy arising on retreat where it can be met and worked with in stillness. If people are really going into fantasy worlds, especially into images or imagined scenarios, maybe even scenes with people in front of them on the retreat, then I give them the instruction to really focus on the exhale, and keep the feeling of sexual energy moving, but downwards, so they can feel the sexual energy in their legs, their pelvis, even in their genitals. On the other hand, if someone’s feeling a lot of sexual energy in their pelvis, and it’s becoming very distracting, and they can’t stay with it, I get them to focus on the inhale, so they let the sexual energy come up into the realm of language and images. Either way you’re balancing the sexual energy so it fills the whole body, just like breathing. This allows you to become one with sexual energy, so that you can learn how to become sexual energy without having to act it out immediately. You don’t have to decide whether it’s good or bad.
The more you open up to sexual energy, the more it feels impersonal. The more you’re separated from the sexual energy, the more it feels like it’s happening to me. I am turned on by that or I want do such and such with so and so. As opposed to becoming one with sexual energy where there’s no me and no object. If you don’t objectify the sexual energy there’s no theoretical self that it’s happening to, and then you release the root of the palette so the tongue is quiet, and let sexual energy take over the body. And then the sexual energy becomes raw sensation. It’s exactly the same technique you would use if you were feeling anger, or envy, or boredom. You go to the place where sexual energy can become raw sensation, and when you open to it as raw sensation then the sensation merges with its background which is infinity, which is Brahman, which is brahmacharya. You’re so wise with the sexual energy you see it’s Brahman. You see it’s infinity, it falls back into the trough of God. Of pure energy, spanda. There’s a kind of vibration that it’s made out of. And two minutes later it’s something else. You’re hungry, your knee hurts. And that’s why it’s really profound to experience sexual energy on retreat because then you have a sort of wisdom in you, so that when it shows up in daily life there’s a way of not managing or tolerating it, but really becoming it. And then the question is: how do you experience sexual energy at that level and also communicate it? This is the place where most of us get stuck. How do you have that level of insight about sexual energy and also use it in relationship? To have healthy sexual relationships. There are healing and unhealing silences. Most of us get stuck here. How do we talk about what we’re feeling.
So again we’re back to the fork in the road. How do you open up to the experience of these energetic patterns? Sexual energy is like a vast fabric that the mind approaches and tries to pin down. How do you keep from being swept away so that you can see that this fabric is so big that it becomes everything? Then the mind stops trying to create stories out of it and the roof of the mouth opens up. This is the physiology of generosity, of saying yes. The tongue releases and the eyes get soft and the pituitary gland feels like it lifts, which connects you with the central axis. There’s a feeling of being hollow in the centre of the body, and whatever’s showing up is just reality. It goes on forever. And it’s so impersonal, and there’s no attachment. There’s no sense that you need to do something with it, you just sit there. How do you go from that into, oh, and here’s this person I really love, and I’m not feeling the vibe. Or: why do we never have sex anymore? How do you move from the infinite place into the realm of relationship and language?
My friend Jowita was just in town visiting, making her annual round of friends and familiars. And she couldn’t help noticing that amongst her partnered comrades, gay and straight, male and female, many of those who were in lifelong commitments were suffering from bed death. She told me, “The less sex they have, the more they talk about food.” As a newlywed herself she couldn’t help but wondering whether it was necessary, if there isn’t another way. Brahmacharya, or the wise use of sexual energy, has traditionally been translated as “celibacy,” but this doesn’t seem the most helpful or non-harming way to have a long term relationship. To say the least. Perhaps beginner’s mind isn’t enough, we need beginner’s body. How to love you every day as if it was the first day? How can I touch you without knowing the answer, the reliable response? How to refuse the roles we’re busy writing for ourselves? In and out of the bedroom.
The Lotus Sutra is a primary Mahayana text written around the first century, and one of its many lessons is that what we call our Buddha nature is really the ability to open up to imagination. I think our Buddha nature is not so much a thing, but the capacity to have a relationship with our imagination. Patanjali calls it viveka-khyatih which is to have discriminative awareness with the imagination. Our imagination is samskara, it’s literally patterned by our culture, by our gender, by so many things. And every once in a while in relationship two patterns come together so we can see where we’re scarred. The word samskara is interesting because it’s actually where we get the English word scar. Sam means “to come together,” samskara means “the coming together of scars, of traces.” There is no place where our scars show up more than in relationship. I think bed death is when we’re not in our bodies, or working with our imagination.If there are difficulties in relationship, my tendency as someone who loves meditation practice is to go and sit on the cushion. Somehow, silence and the cushion will resolve these issues. But it doesn’t work. It really doesn’t work. If there’s a relational problem it has to be dealt with relationally. I think the deepest tapas, the deepest heat of meditation practice, of yoga practice, of this path, is when in relationship you can take the risk of acknowledging what’s in your imagination. Freud used to say that free associating — by which he meant being able to speak what’s on your mind — isn’t what cures the patient. The patient is cured when they can free associate. It’s a really important idea. The ability to actually say what’s moving through your imagination connects you to who you are, it connects you to your Buddha nature, and it brings people together again. It also means recognizing when somebody doesn’t want to hear what’s in your imagination. But there’s nothing more lubricating in the sexual realm than imagination. Than being able to say, “Hey right now I’m really distracted, I thinking about such and such.” Or, “I’m really here with you,” or “You turn me on because of this!” Or, “When we kiss I’m not feeling it, could you slow down a little bit?” In the practice, we let language and the body become the same thing. The subtle body is imagination. It’s the realm of metaphor and ideas and it has to be included in the sexual realm.
If there are difficulties in relationship, my tendency as someone who loves meditation practice is to go and sit on the cushion. Somehow, silence and the cushion will resolve these issues. But it doesn’t work. It really doesn’t work. If there’s a relational problem it has to be dealt with relationally. I think the deepest tapas, the deepest heat of meditation practice, of yoga practice, of this path, is when in relationship you can take the risk of acknowledging what’s in your imagination. Freud used to say that free associating — by which he meant being able to speak what’s on your mind — isn’t what cures the patient. The patient is cured when they can free associate. It’s a really important idea. The ability to actually say what’s moving through your imagination connects you to who you are, it connects you to your Buddha nature, and it brings people together again. It also means recognizing when somebody doesn’t want to hear what’s in your imagination. But there’s nothing more lubricating in the sexual realm than imagination. Than being able to say, “Hey right now I’m really distracted, I thinking about such and such.” Or, “I’m really here with you,” or “You turn me on because of this!” Or, “When we kiss I’m not feeling it, could you slow down a little bit?” In the practice, we let language and the body become the same thing. The subtle body is imagination. It’s the realm of metaphor and ideas and it has to be included in the sexual realm.
Haven’t we seen this so often with couples? If there are sexual problems it’s ok for one of them to go out and have a beer with friends and tell the whole story, finally put into words everything that needs to be said to their partner. It’s safe to air out with friends, but too dangerous with their partner. So at some level their heart is closed up, they’re not connected with their own Buddha nature, they’re not connected with themselves. It’s risky because the more you get to know each other, the more you get into patterns. This is the way we make love. This is the room, this is the time of the day, you put on the mask of the Prime Minister, I put the nylons on, and away we go. Over time that really starts to kill the libido. I can’t keep voting for that prime minister. Not after two terms. It kills the prana. I’ve always been interested in where imagination is being shut down by two people, in how they work together to close that place down. This is another habit pattern, another scar. What I mean by imagination is not just inner imagination, but imagination we can speak about. Speaking is healing, language is healing. I think people who only regard sexual energy in terms of restraint are time bombs, because if the realm of speech is not being included, eventually the energy explodes.
And over time, as a relationship develops, as the scars deepen even as they shapeshift, as the supporting cast arrives, mothers and mother-in-laws, children and neighbours, new challenges develop in relation to brahmacharya, the wise use of sexual energy. If a partner becomes pregnant, for instance, the body undergoes a phantasmal transformation. Who am I today? Am I still beautiful? Am I still this body?
The body has duties. While in caring for your children, or your ailing parents, these can sometimes supercede the pleasures of the body. And as the calendar pages fly past, the person you’re closest with winds up hurting you the most, and it’s hard not to hold those memories, to retreat behind those nursed grudge lines. One of the ways we retreat in couples is through our sexuality, and it can be difficult to bring this place into language, to speak openly with our partners about what is going on for us. It can be trying to do the work of imagination when your partnered roles are moving in lockstep, as if you’ve already decided who you are. Let’s help put each other in jail, let’s assign roles to each of us and never budge from them. It can be hard to reinvent yourself when you’re holding onto these patterns of fear and pain.
How can you hold yourself and allow yourself to be held with enough trust so that you can take a risk? Intimacy is risky. Listening is risky, being able to say, “I think I can hear what might be going on for you. Can you say it with words?” And also being able to recognize: “I don’t think I can hear anymore right now. Can we go for a walk?” I think that acknowledgment allows some space to open up. Can you also bring the acknowledgments of limits forward? “I want to hear more, I want you to tell me everything, but this is as much as I can do right now.” That’s what I mean by being connected with the body. I think that there’s this idea that when we become more advanced, spiritual people we have fewer needs. But I think we have basic needs and sexuality is one of them and it has to be fulfilled somehow. I think when it’s not being fulfilled in the relationship closest to you, you need to know how you feel, so you can start to articulate that. And sometimes those needs can’t be met in relationship, and you’re going to have to find another way of meeting them. And sometimes just acknowledging that they can’t be met is fine. And sometimes it’s not fine. It really isn’t. I think this is where the heart of intimacy is, this is where we do something more than just tolerate what we’re feeling. Because feeling and needs are really interconnected. I’m not talking about needs as a kind of craving, but our basic needs that seem to be intertwined with how we feel, and how we look after ourselves.
When you really get down to sexual energy it’s vibration, it’s spanda shakti. When you go deep in concentration practice and really pay attention to thoughts, you begin to notice what they feel like. Thoughts, too, are just a manifestation of patterns that have as their background everything else in your life. At some level you can’t define sexual energy anymore. And at another level you have to say, “This is sexual energy and this is anger.” I remember when my son’s mother was pregnant we were having a lot of tension in our relationship at the time, and the place it played out was in our sexuality. This is so common in pregnancy, or when you have a child, when one person is doing more care giving than another, or you’re so busy that there’s not as much communication happening. The place that will play out is sexual. All the samskaras are held there. If you go into any one detail of your domestic togetherness — how the kitchen counter is used, how the coat rack is used, or how sexual energy shows up — if you look at one area it opens up into every other area. How’s the bathroom getting cleaned? What’s happening in the bedroom? You take one area and you can see in it all the samskaras. If you had a glass table with iron filings and you put two magnets under it, they’ll all show up as a pattern. Two people come together and they co-create a new samskaric pattern, and it’s really important in this mindfulness practice to catch what these patterns are and to communicate about that. You can’t guess what someone else is thinking.