2016-06-30
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.”

Whenever we feel angry or hurt, we can be fairly certain we’re in this protective mode. We can also be sure that we’re trying to avoid feeling our core fears, whether they’re based on a belief that we’re not good enough or worthy of love—whatever our particular flavor is. Our core beliefs need to be seen for what they are: deeply held assumptions about reality that our particular life circumstances have conditioned us to accept as absolute truth. Once we see this, which is no easy matter, we can enter into the physical experience of hurt itself, allowing ourselves to reside in the sensory world without wallowing in believed thoughts. What does hurt actually feel like? What is its texture? Where do we feel it in the body? Without thinking or analyzing, but through experiencing the moment itself, can we answer the question: “What is this?”

Experiential awareness heals. It may take years of work and many failures, but what other choice do we have? The sexual issue always comes back, at least in part, to the basic practice of coming to know ourselves and learning the willingness to be with whatever life presents.

Again, practicing with so-called sexual problems often has little to do with sex itself, but instead with the overall patterns we’ve brought into the relationship. Often our impulses are the product of our minds rather than the natural arising of sexual energy. Just look at our fantasies, our attraction to the forbidden, or the pernicious judging and evaluating of sexual performance. How often do we experience or appreciate sexuality apart from the filters of our thoughts and conditioning? The main questions we need to raise are: To what extent are we aware of our particular conditioning and mechanical behavior? How, if at all, does cultural morality influence and regulate our sexual lives? In what ways are we driven by thoughts, fears, and core beliefs?

Furthermore, we need to explore how our emotional reactions around sex are tainted with self-judgment. The practice stance has nothing to do with moralistic notions of right and wrong, good and bad. Even with the sticky issue of monogamy, I’m not suggesting there’s a right or a wrong position, and certainly not that I know what’s best. All I’m saying is that most judgment—both of self and other—arises as a result of un-inspected, deeply conditioned beliefs.

Can we look at monogamy clearly, devoid of our conditioned beliefs? The reason we do this isn’t to create a new “should,” but rather to see clearly what we’re doing with our life. Having had my own struggles and confusions with this subject over the years, I know it’s hard to bring it out from the shadowy world of conditioned beliefs and relentless self-judgment. But I also know that with a combination of perseverance and kindness, it too is workable.

There’s no point in continuing to do battle with ourselves, because there’s no enemy within. Striving to perfect ourselves by making ourselves more moral, with all of the implied self-judgment, isn’t the issue. The motivation is not to change ourselves or others, but to aspire to a deepened awareness and a more genuine way of living. As long as we’re having a war between one part of ourselves and another, both parts lose.

Until we bring this subject into our practice, looking with honesty and precision at what we do, how we think, and what we believe, we’ll continue to hurt ourselves and others. Can you see how you hurt yourself by holding on to your pictures of what sex is “supposed” to be? Can you see how you hurt others with these pictures, expectations, and demands? Can you see how these beliefs, and the reactions that come from them, get in the way of real intimacy?

When issues arise around sex, it makes all the difference if we can accept that these issues are our path. They’re not obstacles on the path, but the path itself. Until we understand this point, sex will continue to have its way with us, either overtly in our behavior, or covertly in all of its disguised but potentially destructive forms.

The power of our sexual energy cannot be denied. But this energy is in itself neither good nor bad. As in everything, heaven and hell are both right here, right now. The difference between experiencing our sexuality as heaven or as hell is rooted in one thing only, and that is the clarity of our awareness.

Again, practicing with so-called sexual problems often has little to do with sex itself, but instead with the overall patterns we've brought into the relationship. Often our impulses are the product of our minds rather than the natural arising of sexual energy. Just look at our fantasies, our attraction to the forbidden, or the pernicious judging and evaluating of sexual performance. How often do we experience or appreciate sexuality apart from the filters of our thoughts and conditioning? The main questions we need to raise are: To what extent are we aware of our particular conditioning and mechanical behavior? How, if at all, does cultural morality influence and regulate our sexual lives? In what ways are we driven by thoughts, fears, and core beliefs?

Furthermore, we need to explore how our emotional reactions around sex are tainted with self-judgment. The practice stance has nothing to do with moralistic notions of right and wrong, good and bad. Even with the sticky issue of monogamy, I'm not suggesting there's a right or a wrong position, and certainly not that I know what's best. All I'm saying is that most judgment-both of self and other-arises as a result of un-inspected, deeply conditioned beliefs.

Can we look at monogamy clearly, devoid of our conditioned beliefs? The reason we do this isn't to create a new "should," but rather to see clearly what we're doing with our life. Having had my own struggles and confusions with this subject over the years, I know it's hard to bring it out from the shadowy world of conditioned beliefs and relentless self-judgment. But I also know that with a combination of perseverance and kindness, it too is workable.

There's no point in continuing to do battle with ourselves, because there's no enemy within. Striving to perfect ourselves by making ourselves more moral, with all of the implied self-judgment, isn't the issue. The motivation is not to change ourselves or others, but to aspire to a deepened awareness and a more genuine way of living. As long as we're having a war between one part of ourselves and another, both parts lose.

Until we bring this subject into our practice, looking with honesty and precision at what we do, how we think, and what we believe, we'll continue to hurt ourselves and others. Can you see how you hurt yourself by holding on to your pictures of what sex is "supposed" to be? Can you see how you hurt others with these pictures, expectations, and demands? Can you see how these beliefs, and the reactions that come from them, get in the way of real intimacy?

When issues arise around sex, it makes all the difference if we can accept that these issues are our path. They're not obstacles on the path, but the path itself. Until we understand this point, sex will continue to have its way with us, either overtly in our behavior, or covertly in all of its disguised but potentially destructive forms.

The power of our sexual energy cannot be denied. But this energy is in itself neither good nor bad. As in everything, heaven and hell are both right here, right now. The difference between experiencing our sexuality as heaven or as hell is rooted in one thing only, and that is the clarity of our awareness.


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