Reprinted from "At Home in Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos" with permission of Shambhala Publications.

A young Zen student realized he had some sexual difficulties. He thought about going to his teacher for help but felt a lot of hesitation: “Maybe it’s not appropriate to talk to my teacher about sex. What’s he going to think of me?” He went to the teacher anyway and described the situation. The teacher told him, “We must struggle with desire. Go back to your cushion and learn what it means to struggle with desire.”

The dutiful and persevering student went back to his cushion and struggled with his desire. But for some reason he didn’t get very far. In fact, it seemed like his problem became even worse. So he decided to go to another teacher. This time he went to a teacher who was very famous for his deep Zen wisdom. He told the teacher about his situation. The teacher peered at him in an inscrutable Zen way and said, “No sex. No not-sex. Not one. Not two.” And he rang his bell, dismissing the student.

The student was impressed by this teaching, but when he got back to his cushion, he had no idea what to do with it. Finally he decided to go to another teacher, one famous for his ardent devotion to practice. This teacher said, “Okay, this is what you need to do. Whenever your sexual difficulty arises in your mind, you just stop whatever you’re doing and do one hundred and eight full prostrations, thinking only of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.” The student really liked this advice, because now he had something he could do.

The student followed the third teacher’s advice and became very, very good at bowing. But after some time, he felt as though he were squeezing a balloon right in the middle: as the middle would scrunch up, both ends were close to bursting at the seams.

Even though the student was discouraged, he decided to go to yet another teacher. He saw that maybe he was trying too hard, so he decided to see a teacher who was famous for being laid back. “No problem. Just be one with it. Just let it go,” that teacher said. At this point, the student was becoming cynical. He realized this advice was just words. But still, he had a real aspiration to deal with his situation. Again, he found a new teacher. And finally, in this last teacher’s reply, he understood what all the other teachers were telling him: “We don’t talk about sex here.”

The first thing we need to do, as people, as practicioners, is bring sexuality issues into our awareness. This is how we make them part of our practice world. We need to see our own expectations in this area because they may be hidden or not what we think they are. For example, we may have been raised in a family where sex was rarely talked about or where there was little physical affection. Yet sexual freedom might have been very much the norm on television, in the movies, and among our friends. Although we speak the words of sexual freedom, and even act with apparent freedom, underneath it all we may still experience sex in terms of guilt and shame, or perhaps from a slightly prudish point of view.

Suppressing desire, one of the main efforts of our religious and cultural morality, is not the answer. Trying to suppress desire rarely works. Suppressing desire usually gives it even more power. Renouncing the object of our desire as “bad” may result in temporary disengagement, but in the end it usually just makes our desire and attachment stronger.

There are no formulas for dealing with the issues around sex. In addition to the fact that we rarely attempt to look at these issues in awareness practice, each situation has its own layers of complexity. For example, suppose someone is feeling very strong physical desire for his mate, yet senses a definite lack of mutual interest. This person is now caught between the strong urge to satisfy an intense physical desire and the protective urge to withdraw in order to avoid being hurt. What is the practice?

Again, there is no formula. The crucial thing is to bring awareness to what’s actually going on. Once the inner conflict is clearly seen, we can look more deeply. Do we really believe that we have to fulfill our desire, just because we feel it? For many of us, this is a blind spot that causes a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Further, are we willing to look at our hurt, at the real or imagined “rejection” from our partner? What pictures are we living from? Do we believe that our partner should always share and respond to our sexual interest? Seeing our beliefs clearly will allow us to experience the hurt directly for what it is: a protective response to defend the fragile image of our “self.