Saturday, November 26, 2011


This post will be about sex, so keep reading.  This first paragraph, though, will make another point about meditation and neuroscience (and if you're tempted not to read it first, just remember that skipping foreplay is bad karma).  There seems to be plenty of evidence that meditation will eventually change the structure and functioning of your brain, which sounds amazing, but which is actually less amazing than what people like Robert Aitken have been saying for centuries, that it changes your character and your way of experiencing the world.  But in any case, it's one thing to accept that the practice is transformative, and quite another to want to sign up to the particular transformation it offers.  I once read a report on a study suggesting that experienced meditators could eliminate their subconscious startle reflex.  I thought, 'Impressive', and 'Why the hell would I want to do that?'

I had an exchange of emails at one point with a friend who was at the time (and is still) studying philosophy.  I was already interested in Buddhism at the time, and had been telling him about the four noble truths and the eightfold path, which I'd learned about in Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught.  My friend (like many friends to this day) urged me to consider what he saw as the inhumanity of ideals such as the extinguishing of desire and the realization of selflessness.  I wondered whether the attempt to extinguish desire made us more inhuman than unthinking servitude to it; whether the realization of selflessness had led to greater acts of inhumanity than selfishness' full realization.  And anyway, though I didn't really want to extinguish my self or my desires completely, I knew I wanted to become less self-regarding and less anxious; and that was enough to keep me going.

I know what you're thinking: what does this have to do with sex?  Well, achieving the orthodox Buddhist ideal of exstinguishing desire would obviously involve extinguishing what for many of us feels like the tallest and hottest flame of all, sexual desire.  That's presumably the main reason that monks strengthen the traditional precept against sexual immorality into a vow of celibacy.  I remember reading about Buddhism in a comparative religion textbook we used at my secondary school called Six Great Religions.  There was a picture of some monks with shaven heads looking very silly and very pleased.  Next to them there was a text box saying: 'KEY IDEA: celibacy is key to spiritual development'.  I thought, 'Gosh'.  Although really, Christian monks have usually had the same idea.

I can sometimes see where they're coming from.  Being free from desires may sound unattractive, but it can really just be a way of being fully present in the moment: enjoying the way the sky is ripening to purple over the silhouette of your neighbourhood may be more difficult if you're thinking that you haven't gotten laid for a few months and need to be plotting how to put that right.  And I'm surely not the only twentysomething single in America to be weary of dating: all the fussing and striving that goes into finding someone to desire, pursuing them, and eventually either disappointing them or yourself.  One of the things I've liked about being in relationships it's easier to put all that to one side.

There is, of course, another side to the story.  Many people's most intense experiences of being alive have come from romantic relationships or sexual adventures, and some of them would no doubt insist that those moments were not merely physical but spiritual.  James Joyce seems to have been one of these people: the ecstatic vision that Stephen Daedalus has of the girl with bare legs at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is simultaneously a religious epiphany and an erotic dream come true (as well as an Ovidian metamorphosis, but we'll put her turning into a stork aside for now).  And there's a vein of tantric Buddhism that embraces this: there are even buddhas who are said to have come to realization in more senses than one. 

There's a Zen koan that asks 'Why can't the clear-eyed boddhisatvas ever sever the red thread?'  Nobody knows the answer, but John Tarrant thinks the question is about desire, and his view on this deserves some respect.  Chris Wilson talked one night about how those great old Theravadin monks, try as they might, could never really exstinguish all desire; and about how the Zen way was more to accept that the world we're in was a world of desire, whether we liked it or not.  I looked up to see my friend one seat over nodding vigorously.  Since joining the group, I've gradually pieced together the complex web of relationships, amicable and professional and sexual, that helped bring it into being, and the equally complex network of emotions, desire and love and hatred, that still holds it together.

I've always approached meditation groups as a refuge from all that.  Most of my Zen friends would probably remind me that there is no real refuge from desire, so I'd better stop pretending I can find one.  I won't pretend I've never felt attracted to anyone I sit with.  But I won't date within the community, just like I won't date in the department; call me Theravadin, but I'm not into sanghacest.  Occasionally, I look around the zendo at my dear friends, knowing that they're feeling impatience or anger toward someone, and feel glad to be free of it all (assuming I really am).  But more often, I watch them meditating together and bowing at one another, and become aware of a feeling in myself of admiraton, perhaps awe, even envy, that though they go on feeling lust or longing or regret or frustration at one another, they always do so, in this space at least, with compassion and dignity.

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