Maybe you assume that carnal thoughts are the furthest thing from the good meditator's mind, a tranquil antiseptic white space inhabited only by feelings of loving-kindness and compassion. Well, my informal surveys of fellow sitters suggest otherwise. Beneath many of those impressively calm exteriors in the shrine room lie the churning minds of high school horn dogs.
I'll speak for myself. At a recent retreat, I sat on a cushion for an entire month and spent a good chunk of the time fantasizing about my neighbor, a pretty young woman I had never met. Hours passed, and I pondered details. Does she have a boyfriend? I wondered. What does she look like naked? How exactly does one seduce someone in the middle of a silent retreat?
Speaking was prohibited, but note-writing was allowed. That communications loophole provided the fuel for my fantasy. I would write her a note politely inviting her to continue observing silence...in my private room. No, no, no. I would invite her over for "tea," and of course we would remain silent. I pondered these details for hours. I reminded myself that this was the time to settle my mind, not to scheme. I gently steered my attention back to the rise and fall of my belly, and then reconsidered exactly what words to put in that note.
The persistence of my fantasy infuriated me at first, but eventually it just depressed me. I had put aside this month in order to achieve some self-realization, and all I could do was scheme about seducing a girl I didn't even know.
A few months later I stumbled upon an observation in Arthur Jeon's book "Sex, Love, and Dharma" that reminded me of my lustful contemplations. He provided the clearest explanation I've heard about why meditators like me might drift toward the pleasures of the flesh. The orgasm, he writes, "is for many people their only taste of total wakefulness, the only time they are not self-referencing, their only release from the bondage of 'me.'" Every meditator I've met is searching desperately for that release. Most have made some abstract commitment to the contemplative path, but like me they carry a substantial amount of ambivalence. It stands to reason that many of us would steal some cushion time to fantasize about the easy way out, that fast track to existential oneness, the ever-reliable quest for the good roll in the hay.
Jeon's book is packed with straightforward advice for remaining faithful to the Dharma while pursuing intimacy in the world. He's a compelling writer, and his solutions are appropriately obvious. Most involve developing awareness: When I start planning a wedding on a first date, I should notice that I have left the present moment. When I want to run away from somebody, I may tell myself one story, but a deeper one is that I am afraid of being hurt. Time and time again reading his book, I came across situations that I had encountered. Jeon offered reliably healthy solutions to scenarios I reliably botched.
Could reading Jeon's advice during the retreat have saved me from jumping down my rabbit hole--or at least staying there so long? I doubt it.
I know it's counterproductive to criticize myself mercilessly, but I still do it. I understand the nefarious relationship between my sweet tooth and my dental bills. There are plenty of things I do that aren't good for me. Learning Jeon's convincing theory for my action might have proved useful, but the basic dilemma would have remained. Why can't I just do what I intended to do? What is so hard about sitting on a cushion and following my breath?
As the retreat ended, the silence was lifted and within hours I was free to make a move. My neighbor was single, and she was also interested. It didn't take long to discover she was a sweet woman with insecurities and strengths that I never could have imagined. Our connection developed quickly and got confusing quickly. In short, our relationship rose and fell like many others I've experienced.
I meet plenty of people who express interest in meditation before announcing they simply can't do it. Whenever I inquire, I get a similar answer. "Oh, my mind is just too frenetic. It's not calm--like yours." I always appreciate the addendum. From what I've experienced, meditation isn't about having a calm mind. It's about exercising—if only for a few minutes—a bit of that awareness. Fantasizing about a girl isn't meditating, but bearing witness to a fantasy's durability is. It's a subtle difference, but a crucial one. It's like the difference between reading a book and actually learning something.