Thursday, June 14, 2007

Off the Mat -- Brahmacharya

Hey – doesn’t “brahmacharya” mean celibacy?!?!?!?

Relax. It’s just another path to explore. ;-)

Brahmacharya (as wikipedia will tell you), is a Sanskrit word/phrase that translates to “approaching ultimate reality.”

In some forms of usage, it refers to the stage of life when one foregoes specifically sexual conduct while drawing near to a teacher or to God. In monastic traditions, it has meant celibacy. In other areas of life, it has meant things like being faithful to one’s spouse, or avoiding sexual misconduct.

But whatever the history, what’s the connection to yoga?

Yoga entails the perception, development, and control of energy. Utkatasana (Chair pose) is impossible without using energy, and the deeper you move into that pose, the more energy must be found, drawn in, and controlled. Sexual expression – or even more commonly, the pursuit of and desire for sexual opportunities – just ties us up into knots. It seems that sexuality can capture our grasping egos and attention like nothing other than physical survival itself. So yoga reminds us to notice those that.

Mindless pursuit of desire in any of its forms – attachment, obsession, or infatuation – reinforces our conceptual senses of “me” and “mine,” and diminishes our ability to see, really see, another being. Sexuality can entail all of that. Sometimes, the attachment itself is so strong that the rest of my mind seems to go dormant when its running its course. It’s only after the feeling begins to recede – after I no longer clutch it so tightly – that I can see it for what it is: a deeply ingrained mind-pattern. Mind you, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s a pretty important deeply ingrained mind-pattern. Without it, it’s easy to imagine that the species wouldn’t have arrived here today. But whatever its origin, in our context, it’s just another opportunity to practice mindfulness. (You knew I was headed to that conclusion, didn’t you?)

In my life, the very strongest lessons about mindfulness have not been those encountered quietly during introspective moments on a meditation cushion, but rather those that occur in the brief flash of mindfulness that can happen when my entire body and emotion are fully engaged or otherwise out of control – when I am most angry, or ambitious, or fearful, or resentful. Or filled with sexual desire. Those are the occasions when energy moves most in me.

But whatever channel it moves through, I’m increasingly convinced that energy is, in the end, just energy.

In writing about interpersonal relationships, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn observed that there is a kind of “suchness” about others and our relationships to them that we can notice. He compares the nature of those relationships to electricity or natural gas that we bring into our homes for power or heat. Either one can be dangerous when not managed attentively, or when used unskillfully. But with a well grounded recognition of the “suchness” of gas or electricity – and the accompanying measures we use to avoid harm – they can be great blessings in life. (Peace Is Every Step, pp. 68-69)

While he wasn’t talking specifically about sexuality, I think the point is largely the same: there is a suchness about sexuality. It has certain characteristics and effects that can be perceived and understood. It channels and consumes much of the energy of our lives. If we pursue it or use it unskillfully, we can cause trouble to ourselves and to others. Conversely, when brought into the realm of mindfulness, it can be a blessing.

But if my experience is any indicator, sexual desire is amazingly adept at avoiding the bright, full light of mindfulness. Who hasn’t had the experience of listening to a friend talk about the friend’s sexual feelings or actions toward another person, without thinking or saying out loud at some point, “Have you lost your mind!?” Sexuality, with its tunnel-vision focus on self and desire and power and energy, is second only to violence in its ability to track us into unconscious and unmindful patterns. Advice columns in newspapers are filled with stories of people who have lost their minds over sex. Television has made an industry of depicting doing exactly that. Curiously, when we are parked in front of the television watching others who have lost their minds, we can easily lose our own, as well.

Sadly, given its profound power, the widespread lack of recognition of the “suchness” of sexuality often leads to more harm than good. When in its pursuit, we dissipate energy, rather than controlling it. We limit our own perceptions. We harm others, even those whom we care about and with whom we are intimate, as we mistake attachment and desire for love and compassion. And when we allow our energy – our thoughts and our actions – to settle into the deeply ingrained ruts of sexual stimulus/response, we only deepen them, making even basic awareness of the ruts themselves more difficult.

So there are lots of good yogic reasons to be interested in how sexuality affects our minds and bodies and spirits. But if you’re interested in practicing brahmacharya, how do you go about it? Some thoughts about explorations:

Notice the next time you feel sexually attracted to another person. Bring all your mindfulness to the experience. Notice what you actually feel, and where in your body you feel it. Notice when those feelings are strongest, and then watch them. See how long they sustain themselves, and watch them subside. They always do.

Then, also, notice the effect of the attraction on your compassion toward the other person. Are you more or less aware of or attentive to the other person’s best interests? In some regards, sexual attraction can enable a kind of intense awareness and concentration on the other. But also, notice the feeling’s effect on those outside of the field of attraction. Are you able to think and act compassionately toward those persons or do they fade from your perceptions? What energies are entailed? How are they expressed?

Are your thoughts and actions consistent with the deepest wisdom of your heart and mind?

It can be profoundly instructive to watch our own experience of the entire process of sexual attraction from the time it first arises, through its full development and manifestation, and then through its subsidence and transformation. But that kind of mindful observation is much harder (perhaps impossible?) to accomplish if we are simultaneously trying to observe the process and trying to fulfill our desires.

In that light, perhaps, it is easier to understand why some people choose to pursue a path of celibacy. Mind you, though, celibacy can come in lots of different shapes and sizes.

It can exist for a day or a week or a month, as we just experience the attraction itself, neither shunning contact with the person, nor indulging our desires. Celibacy can exist in a different form by committing to intimacy with a single person, as many promise with marriage. For most, sexual attraction does not limit itself to a single person forever, so there can be opportunity to practice and experience celibacy by abstaining from sexual expression outside of the committed relationship. Celibacy can also exist during stages of a lifetime, or even for an entire lifetime, as well, for those who seek what it can provide.

One further point: if you do choose to practice brahmacharya in any of its shapes or sizes, try laying aside the judgmental part of your mind. We live in a society that is a peculiar amalgam of sexual indulgence and condemnation. It’s useful to be conscious of our environment, and its influence on our selves. For some, sexuality is difficult to de-link from the internal judging mind. But that mind, like the “oughts” we discussed last week, can easily get in the way of clear seeing. If you choose to practice this yama, consider doing so without judgment, only with clear eyes and a heart of compassion, even for yourself.
So how does any of that comprise “approaching ultimate reality” that the Sanskrit term brahmacharya translates to?

Just like our work on the yoga mat – whenever we engage in life without judgment, but completely mindful and completely aware, we pop our minds out of their well-worn ruts, and –sometimes quite suddenly –we can see in ways we couldn’t from the inside of the rut.

The Yoga-Sutra describes it this way:

As the patterning of consciousness subsides, a transparent way of seeing …
saturates consciousness; like a jewel, it reflects equally whatever lies before
it – whether subject, object, or act of perceiving.