I'm Buddhist and have great sex. I've also been in recovery for nearly 15 years. Buddhism is a sexy topic these days. But do real Buddhists have sex? Aren't Buddhists supposed to be beyond things like desire?
Many people still see Buddhists only as robe-wearing monastics who have given up worldly things like sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. But there are different kinds of Buddhists. Some are celibate renunciates like the Dalai Lama. When asked on a recent TV interview if he ever thought about women, he said he doesn't because he's a monk, though occasionally he does notice a beautiful woman. As a monk, the Dalai Lama has taken vows that prohibit sex, partly because it can lead to attachment which is a distraction from the spiritual path. But other kinds of Buddhists are young, single and sexually active. Some are married. And some are "wild yogis" who don't even look like Buddhists.
Sex can be unethical for those who've taken a vow of celibacy or who some who have sex addiction issues. I have taken lay vows (no pun intended), one of which is not to engage in sexual misconduct. What's misconduct? It's hard to say. There are no universal rules. For me, misconduct is behavior that goes against my own ethics. But ethics can change, like everything else. Buddhists call this impermanence. Is that an excuse for bad behavior? No. If we lower the moral bar to justify selfish behavior, that's a compromise in integrity. If circumstances change, so then can the rules. If we realize, for example, that monogamy isn't an ideal that works for us, then our ethics can change. Then certain behaviors that might once have been considered misconduct become normal behavior. This level of self-awareness takes time and a mindful approach to develop. At first, we might trick ourselves into all sorts of justifications. If we're on a spiritual path and keep good counsel we can develop the skill of adapting to such change, rather than holding on to rigid, outdated ideals.
Desire for anything, sex included, is not inherently bad, in my view. Some Buddhists learn not to succumb to certain desires as part of the spiritual path, even without specific vows. If they fail, sometimes they practice various forms of confession or purification which can quite extreme. I've heard stories of monks in monasteries who have been whipped naked, in front of the abbot. Sounds kinky, right? Maybe a little repression going on there. Recovering addicts must also be careful, but for us, failure to manage attachment can mean death. A man who was a part of our 12-Step Buddhist group as well as a regular 12-Stepper was recently found dead with a crack pipe in his pocket. This incident wasn't sex related to my knowledge. The point is that for addicts, desire can become full blown addiction and can lead to the worst of consequences when not managed diligently with a comprehensive, multi-faceted recovery program.
As an addict in recovery, any behavior that causes harm to myself or others is likely to directly or indirectly lead to relapse. But we have to do our own work to discover what actions to avoid. For some, polyamory is not OK. But sex workers, dancers, prostitutes or porn\webcam stars who get sober don't always change their line of work or everything in their lifestyle -- at least not right away. In 12-Step recovery, we don't decide what an individual's sex conduct should be. It's up to each person to "shape a sane and sound ideal" based on the process of working the 12 Steps. One's sponsor (according to the traditions of most 12-step programs, a sponsor is only for helping one learn the 12 steps) doesn't get to tell us who to date or when to have sex. Some may take their roles too seriously and become controlling in this way, but it's not part of the program.
As 12-Steppers, Buddhists, 12-Step Buddhists -- those of us who practice both -- do we renounce all desire? No. It's part of life and isn't likely to evaporate just because we meditate. But we do need to be careful about attachment. Sex, like food, is a regular part of normal life for healthy people. Sometimes we desire sex. That's normal. But some feel that we need sex to be OK. If we're using sex compulsively or when it goes against or own ideals, we may need to take a step back and address the issue honestly.
We can be rigorous in our practice, whichever form it takes, depending on our circumstances. A sex addict will have a different situation than someone with a mere high sex drive. For the sex addict, it may make sense to follow the three-second rule: not to look at stimulating people for more than three seconds. They may also follow guidelines about levels of behavior that let them know they're in serious danger of sexual relapse. Staring for more than three seconds may move a sex addict from outer circle, somewhat normal desire, to inner circle, more dangerous desire. The next level is considered relapse into addictive patterns. Most sex addicts that I've met are not trying to kill sexual desire for life. There are differences between practicing Dharma\recovery and shutting ourselves off from natural desires. Again, different ethics for different people and situations. Whether we're addicted or Buddhist or neither, we can use mindfulness practices from Buddhism to decrease attachment and increase fun times.
Practice: The paramita (perfection) of generosity can be a great way for counteracting an over abundant desire and creating a loving, safe space for sex. We can apply it for ourselves and for others. For each, we first mindfully consider our intention and then consciously apply an action in accordance with our principle, in this case, generosity.
Practice for Self
Meditation on intention: For yourself, begin with a silent meditation for at least 10-15 minutes. As the meditation period comes to a close, try to cultivate the intention to be more generous to yourself. In the quiet space of mindfulness, think about it a little. Give yourself permission. You may have to get over any hang up about being selfish; remember, you deserve to be generous to yourself. The practice will allow you to be less selfish with your partner(s). Ask yourself how it would be to practice generosity for yourself in your sex life. Gently consider the possibilities of what it might look like. Perhaps you will indulge a fetish, read an erotic novel or purchase something at a shop to enhance your own experience. Allow yourself the experience of desire. We're not talking compulsion here but more acknowledgment of healthy desire. By using mindfulness we can be more aware when desire moves into attachment. Just explore the feelings and allow yourself some healthy desire.
Action: Take yourself out, or in, on a sexual generosity date. Apply something from your intention meditation that you feel comfortable taking action on. Use common sense, be mindful and consult your support group if necessary.
Practice for Others
Meditation on intention: Use this awareness from your practice with yourself going in to the practice for your partner. While this is written as a couple's practice, it can be done alone, without your partner's knowledge. It will still have an effect. Either way, the practice should be done at first outside the bedroom or other sexual context. Give it space to work.
First, create an atmosphere conducive to meditation and relaxation. Use candles, aromatherapy sprays, incense and a special seating arrangement. Then, sit in silent meditation with your partner for 10-15 minutes. Perhaps practice meditation together many times before moving on to the next exercise! The practice of mindfulness alone will enhance your awareness and sensitivity. After meditation, each person can write out their intentions or aspiration for practicing generosity with their partner. The inspiration can come from internal exploration, or a conversation. Consider the following types of questions, or make up your own. What would you give? It could be time doing their favorite activity or listening to their needs, validation of some of their feelings, a massage or a special thing they like done for them. It doesn't have to be directly sexual. It could be a foot rub or washing their hair (or their car!). Maybe they would like to have you role play a fantasy figure of some sort. Be creative, ask questions. Listen actively to the answers: keep eye contact, nod as your partner speaks, tell them that you respect their feelings. Take your time to explore, not exploit, their desire and your intention to bring it alive a little.
Action: Take the awareness that you've cultivated in your intention and action for generosity for yourself and the intention of generosity for your partner into the bedroom. Be playful. Let go of expectations. Try to forget and release any and all inhibitions. Let this practice work, or perhaps let it fail. It may take a few tries, especially if you or your partner is new to meditation. The effort will increase intimacy. Intimacy increases pleasure. Remember not to get attached! Let things come, let them go. It's all good.
We'll be working with the Six Perfections -- Generosity, Discipline, Patience, Diligence, Meditative Concentration and Wisdom -- on the 12-Step Buddhist Summer 2012 Retreat Aug. 26-28 at Breitenbush Hot Springs. For information and to register, see 12-Step Buddhist Summer Retreat 2012-Perfecting Maintenance: The Six Perfections and the 12 Steps.