By Evan Sutter
After my three-month ‘detox’ and with the supportive friendships I developed during my three-month stay at Plum Village, I decided to carefully consider my relationship to the Third Mindfulness Training and to take a break from sex.
When I first heard the Third Training on true love and sexual energy, I was in great opposition to the line “know that… sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined to not engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends.”
I could never see how sexual activity was harming me. I knew it was all based on craving with nothing much deeper, but I couldn’t connect the dots between my craving and my suffering. What was suffering anyway?
I grow up in a world where satisfying my craving seemed to be the number one objective. Every advertisement on television and the newspaper calls for one craving or the other to be dealt with. And when it comes to sex we are bombarded every which way, so much so that we think that solving our cravings is the only way, and the right way.
So there are million dollar industries like pornography, brothels, strip clubs that teach us if you have a craving, best to get it sorted. We have sex with people we don’t like, so we no longer feel our craving. But this only stops our craving for a second, and not before long, there it is again; the same craving, and what do we do, the only thing we know how, we rush off trying to satisfy it once again.
We can see how it is always harmful and how it continues to leave our loneliness, restlessness, boredom, lack of meaning and in turn our suffering untouched, only covered over by fruitless attempts to satisfy it. When you have sex just to satisfy craving you don’t really satisfy anything. The craving doesn’t die, it just gets stronger, you just throw another log on the fire and the fire gets bigger, stronger and sometimes out of control – this was the case for me.
The craving doesn’t die, it just gets stronger, you just throw another log on the fire and the fire gets bigger, stronger and sometimes out of control – this was the case for me.
I had stronger opposition to the latter part of the line, “I am determined to not engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends.” Initially I thought – “well there goes all my relationships.” I thought where is the fun in all of this? Surely I can’t introduce all these girls to my family and friends, and surely I can’t wait till I love a girl to have sex – “I would never have had sex”, or so I thought.
The longer I sat on these words without distracting myself with something else, the longer I thought maybe they’re right. Maybe this is why I lack aspiration, maybe this why I run in circles? Because I’m too afraid to not answer my craving every time it calls. Maybe I am missing a piece of the puzzle?
It was obvious to me. I couldn’t do ‘nothing’, certainly not by myself. I always had to run away from my loneliness and boredom. I was just a sheep following the flock; it was the norm, and I wasn’t strong enough to forge my own path because I didn’t know what that path was. I saw how I had managed to keep on getting involved in stupid behaviour that was harmful to myself because it was the easy choice, and doing something different to others, is always the more difficult one. In fact, I felt stuck; I didn’t have the tools to deal with these strong emotions.
During group sharing, and after some deep reflection, I saw that not only was I weak and at times a lazy person, but I was ego crazy (I wanted to be good at this and others needed to know). My actions were more often than not out of fear and boredom. I was like the person Thich Nhat Hanh describes in his book Fear, a drowning man who grasps on to anything that floats by.
I was embarrassed talking about how easy I continually succumbed to my craving. This was a turning point, finally realising you are embarrassed by your actions – actions that stretch 13 years are a bitter pill to swallow. I had no choice but to make a hard call, a call that was counter-culture and even surprised me.
I was going to give up sex. Well, to take a break at least, I wasn’t becoming a monk! It was only going to be six months.
I wasn’t going to let my mere cravings dictate what I do with my life. I didn’t want to be embarrassed any longer and I didn’t want to run in circles all my life. I didn’t want to feel trapped anymore and disgusted with myself. And, most importantly I wanted to see for the first time what these cravings actually felt like without having to run off and satisfy them. I wanted to just feel, if it was uncomfortable, I wanted to be uncomfortable, I wanted to see if it was loneliness, boredom or ego where these cravings were born, I wanted to be in a real relationship, a true friendship, maybe even discover this thing called love.
I knew I hadn’t formed any appropriate ways of dealing with my sexual energy and I hadn’t cultivated the four basic elements of true love in any of my sexual relationships– and I was again embarrassed. “Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others”.
I knew that if I could do this that it would be a massive personal transformation, one that would help me to forge my own path, break myself free from running in circles, and allow me to establish a deep and strong connection with myself and others. When I first announced that I would undertake this experiment of personal discovery there were looks of shock on the faces in the group, but I knew it was something that simply had to be done. No sex for six months until I see what it is that haunts me.
It would be a massive personal transformation, one that would help me to forge my own path, break myself free from running in circles, and allow me to establish a deep and strong connection with myself and others.
Did I accomplish the six months and how was it?
It was something I could never have undertaken if I hadn’t first built the tools for happiness in Plum Village. During the three months I got to know myself, I got to enjoy the simple delights of life, I had time free from distractions; I had time to not run away from my sufferings, and this allowed me to become aware of how I was feeling and to get in touch with my thoughts and anxieties.
When I was back at home after my time in Plum Village, I found myself back in similar places to before, externally but not internally. It was an interesting experience being encountered with old habits and being able to be aware of the feelings helped me make different decisions. Sure I still struggled a little; old habits don’t just go away because you change your mind.
Did I still have cravings?
It became a case of simply not being able to tell myself lies, I knew what I wanted and this wasn’t it. It wasn’t a case of resisting my cravings and just pushing them away just for sake of reaching my target – it came to a point where the cravings subsided for longer and longer periods.
I went to parties, weddings, pre-wedding parties, engagements, functions, and holidays and never slept with anyone. I met people and spoke with them, and hung out, but didn’t have the desire. I knew what it would give me, and it wasn’t very much. Looking back, it never gave me much, except ego boosts and reprieves from my boredom and loneliness.
Have a look at the world today and you don’t have to look far to see how far we are under the spell of craving and desire when it comes to sex. Already I’ve mentioned pornography (which is causing significant damage to teenagers and adults) and prostitution, but look at the plethora of dating and ‘hook up’ sites like Tinder, Grindr, Skout, Tingle, MeetMe, Swoon, Bang With Friends, Pure and there’s many more. The world’s high on sex, and so was I, because the worlds high on doing and distracting, and as result we need to keep doing, and it doesn’t matter what we are doing, as long as it is distracting.
I was running around in circles chasing the same desires because I’d never analysed where they stemmed from in the first place. It seems somewhat absurd and completely abnormal in the west to find out why you feel the way you do and why you do the things you do, which is absolutely ridiculous – it should be the first thing you do.
I said “no” more times than I can remember to propositions of sex, relationships and one night stands. People were baffled; friends couldn’t believe it and they thought I was crazy, and the girls thought I was even crazier. It was ironic that people thought I was boring for not having sex, when in actual fact, it was the first time I wasn’t.
Without sex, desire and craving involved it allowed me to focus on other areas which I’d continued to ignore when it came to relationships. I was talking to a girl I had spent some time with in Plum Village via email. Firstly, there was no agenda, no sex and most likely never, so this was new. Secondly, when we met, despite obvious attraction, we just spoke, just as friends, openly and honestly with no need to make either one of us look good or come across as ideal, again this was new. Thirdly, when we spoke via email there was no reason to keep on talking, no talk of ever catching up, no talk of dating, or future sex, we just spoke because it was fun. For the first time I had a relationship where sex wasn’t the central focus. It was built on friendship and turned into purely an emotional, psychological and intellectual relationship with no motive or agenda.
Without sex, desire and craving involved it allowed me to focus on other areas which I’d continued to ignore when it came to relationships.
Quite opposite to all my previous relationships where sex was front and centre and probably the opposite for most relationships in the western world, especially the modern western relationship – where swiping photos based on looks and messaging in new age phone slang organising a ‘catch up’ is the norm – a very sad norm indeed.
I see that if craving and desire weren’t so strong in all these people and if they had appropriate ways of dealing with their cravings that none of these businesses that are now more like lifestyles would be around. If they bothered to look within and truly take the time to find out what makes them tick, they would see that covering up their fears of loneliness with this is only going to cause them and others a lot of suffering. As Daniel Gottlieb wrote in his acclaimed book Learning from the heart, “Desire is just a symptom of distress and not a call to action”.
Take it from me, if you can’t be happy and content by yourself then you shouldn’t be in a relationship. The key ingredient to a wholesome, loving relationship is not needing one; where both parties involved know themselves, are happy as individuals, and are happy doing nothing.
If you can’t be happy and content by yourself then you shouldn’t be in a relationship.
It’s sad to see how many relationships start as just a distraction from boredom, a cover up so they don’t have to ever deal with the true pain below, and it is even sadder when they progress to marriage and involve children. But as Thay says, the trick is “not to run away from our suffering”. And Nicolas Boileau says, “In vain he flees his troubles on a horse – they share the saddle and see him on his course.”
It’s scary to think that if I never went to Plum Village, I never would have stopped with three months of quiet time to identify this, and I would still be a slave to my desires, thinking that it is absolutely normal. The three months gave me a clarity that will never allow me to fall back into my old ways. Once you see the stupidity of it all, it makes it extremely difficult to lie to yourself, all the stories you used to make up to convince yourself; they just don’t cut it anymore.
Any amount of time without distractions will ease the mind and give you clarity to dive deep into your way of thinking. See for yourself what just two weeks without the T.V, your mobile phone, social media and the newspaper do to your emotions; what it does to your anxiety and fear.
See for yourself what just two weeks without the T.V, your mobile phone, social media and the newspaper do to your emotions; what it does to your anxiety and fear.
Our minds are sticky; they grab onto everything around us, the clutter from advertisements and the media’s propaganda. In one day if you read the paper, watch morning news, listen to the radio on your way to work, watch two hours of T.V at night, spend time on social media, your mind is pushing and pulling from all angles, and this is not even including your work day. It’s the very reason why most of our decisions are made out of fear or boredom or loneliness and not from anything resembling our genuine needs or wants.
How many relationships would be better if they were born out of something genuine rather than merely a petty desire? Divorce would drop because people would know why they started doing something in the first place. Teen pregnancy would almost be eradicated because for the first time we wouldn’t need to simply succumb to our desires and cravings pushed onto us from the media and society in general. Prostitutes would be searching for redundancy packages and brothel owners for new careers. The whole shallow and superficial nature of sex would be under the spotlight.
I see now that I was stuck firmly in the pleasure trap, chasing after the next shallow superficial solution that would give me gratification and satisfy my ego and deep routed insecurities. Was I uncommon, not by any means, I was like the majority of others who had bought into the premise that sex is powerful, that it should have its rightful place on top of the pedestal.
Fuelled by my lack of aspiration and a lack of determination and concentration in other areas of life it was easy for me to keep falling back into old habits. As the Buddha taught, “A tree that leans to the west, falls to the west.” I was continually nourishing this part of my life, and what you nourish, you become. If you keep chasing after women in a superficial way, what do you become?
I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw a few mates one morning after a party, after I asked how their night was, one responded by saying how he wasted the night talking to some girl, because she went home by herself and left him stranded to head home solo, too. I laughed because this was always my intentions when I went out; I rated the night on how it started but most importantly on how it ended, and if it didn’t end with a young lady, I was honestly bitterly disappointed. We spend the night not enjoying the actual moments so we can once again settle those temptations within us, just like we did the night before, the week before that and the five years before that too.
Famous British philosopher and one of my all- time favourite writers Bertrand Russell said, “Love is an experience in which our whole being is renewed and refreshed as is that of plants by rain after drought. In sex intercourse without love there is nothing of this. When the momentary pleasure is ended, there is fatigue, disgust, and a sense that life is hollow. Love is part of the life of earth; Sex without love is not.”
In my time is Plum Village I learnt about the four pastures that you need to take care of, sometimes referred to as the ‘Shepherd Analogy.’ First it is vital that you know what’s happening inside your body, notice your tension in your body and know how to relax it. Secondly, you need to know when you’re running after a pleasant feeling, i.e. this girl is good looking, if I sleep with her, it will make me happy. Thirdly, we need to notice our perceptions, our ideas about the world, i.e. when craving is present, fear, anxiety and worry, and the last pasture is the need to create conditions in our life that will support us in becoming more joyful, peaceful, confident, relaxed and concentrated. The world is bent on distraction, a mind that is distracted, is the root of suffering.
This endless craving did plenty of damage to the friends around me, and their cravings ensured the wheel would keep on spinning. It was a game more than anything; friends’ pursuits would inspire you and the others to follow suit. Soon everyone involved, friends, younger brothers and cousins came to see this as the natural course of action – satisfy your cravings and satisfy your ego at the same time. What we never saw and what most continue not to see is that this is our suffering. Sexual activity motivated by just cravings can never truly satisfy us. It’s short term, petty and insecure glorification that makes us suffer more than we like to admit. It’s a kind of silent suffering, one we don’t even know exists; it might not hurt us physically (it does sometimes), but it kills our time and zaps our energy, our zest and our passion.
Sexual activity motivated by just cravings can never truly satisfy us.
I still remember vividly the first time I declined an offer out at a bar. Normally in a situation like this in the past, it would play over in my head for some time after, but this time, there was only quiet and contentedness. It never crossed my mind for a second after and I continued in the good company of friends. I’m not sure whether the moment was lost on my friends, but it was certainly not on me, and for the first time I experienced a deep-rooted change in myself; it wasn’t forced in order to keep my pledge of no sex, it couldn’t have been more natural and for the right reasons. Then and there, I knew things would just never be the same again.
I admit, when I first started this journey, it was a journey I never even knew I was on. It kind of just happened and changes were just occurring without any force or effort. My first few weeks, my first month in Plum Village I was still very much under the thumb of cravings and desires. I would automatically label someone and create ideas in my head whenever I saw a beautiful woman and it’s not to say that I still don’t have desires, only now they certainly don’t roar like they used to.
I feel like I’m in a much easier place, a much quieter place. Sometimes in the past it used to feel like such a struggle managing the thoughts in my head; it felt like I had an expectation to live up to; I felt I needed to satisfy every craving and desire that presented itself. Now, I’m much more content and I can’t help but think why I ever put such great emphasis on sex in the first place.
Now, I’m much more content and I can’t help but think why I ever put such great emphasis on sex in the first place.
Plum Village gave me the chance for the first time in my life to sit with myself and see why I felt the things I did. At home it was so easy to continually cover up my emotions. If I was bored, I would go out for a few beers, make a phone call to a girl or turn on the T.V. If I was lonely the same thing, I would quickly distract myself from actually facing the issue in the first place. Any form of anxiety or fear whatsoever and it was quickly covered up by our addiction to doing, and our addiction to being busy.
I think if our new direction in all our relationships is friendship, compassion and enjoyment, we will easily be able to break our old cycle of bad habits and develop something deeper and more meaningful. Remember the trick is “not to run away from our suffering”, but to just ‘see’ it, feel it, make friends with it.
I used to need a girlfriend to be happy; I needed the company and the familiarity. It was only after taking this break and seeing my grave discomfort for what they really were did I see that a girlfriend was just a short term fix and would never give me happiness – until I sorted out myself first. As Lucretius said, I was “a sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady.”
If our new direction in all our relationships is friendship, compassion and enjoyment, we will easily be able to break our old cycle of bad habits and develop something deeper and more meaningful.
I didn’t have sex for nine months until I was involved in a relationship with true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my friends and family. It was funny, that only when I didn’t need someone that it happened and all so easily – that when I was building a better relationship with myself, I was organically growing myself with others, too.
As Bertrand Russell said, “Human nature is so constructed that it gives affection most readily to those who seem least to demand it.” I think this is because when you are content with yourself and can find happiness in yourself and simple delights, you really don’t need to seek it in others, and when you don’t need to seek it in others or “demand” it as Russell says, you give yourself great freedom and open yourself up to great affection.
On a finishing note on the topic of my sex sabbatical, it may sound ‘boring’ as many people put it, to give up sex, but really when you think about it, – is sex really that exciting? I think sex is overrated, but I think love is underrated. I think it isn’t the act of sex itself that is exciting, but it’s the appeasing of years of being bombarded from all angles that you need to have it that’s exciting. And, once you realise it’s all petty and superficial, hopefully you won’t jump on that merry go round because it’s a dead end road without love.
It ends in grief, guilt and regret. Only when the direction of my relationship became friendship, compassion and enjoyment and not my attachment to sex, did I get something meaningful. One ends at the point of ejaculation and the other continues and inspires.