spirituality, asceticism, and sensuality

Alternatively, the above title could be something like: Can a person be spiritual and still be sensual within his/her marriage?

Questions that come to mind are:  Does attaining a spiritual level of consciousness require an ascetic renunciation of one’s sexuality?  Are spirituality and sensuality (within one’s marriage) mutually exclusive conditions or experiences?  Can the individual seeking, or aspiring to make progress in spirituality enjoy a certain degree of sense experience and gratification in his or her life?  Or, put in other words, is the moral (not illicit) enjoyment of the physical part of one’s being, enjoyment derived from or through the senses, an impediment to making spiritual progress?

Asceticism and renunciation are found in various forms in most religions.  In extreme forms, mortification of the flesh is seen as an aid to achieving a spiritual level of consciousness.  Lifelong celibacy is a form of asceticism.

 

Our featured image is of a work of sculpture that depicts a being sitting in a posture of meditation (photo taken in India in February, 2017 by our blog’s photographer).  We are not sure if the being is one of the incarnations of Vishnu, or is Shiva.

 

 

 

background and context

Let’s give a working definition for a couple of terms so that this essay will make sense to readers.  Spiritual level of consciousness is when the individual recognizes his true spiritual nature, realizes his ultimate nature is that of a spiritual being and ceases to identify with his body.  The body for such a person is merely a vessel, a vehicle of consciousness.  He believes that when the body dies, the spirit (or consciousness) continues to exist (albeit on a different plane).  Bodily level of consciousness is the lower level when the individual identifies with his body so much so that he forgets his true spiritual nature.  Often times, in his spiritual ignorance, he pursues a life of sense gratification with little interest in ultimate questions.  He may, as many do, think that the death of the body is the end of everything for him.  Cessation of consciousness.  Permanent non-existence.  (It is not very surprising that many people who are at this poor, shallow level of consciousness live hedonistic and ultimately selfish or self-absorbed lives slaves to both the thrill of novelty and to sense gratification.)

There are sects of Hinduism today that do promote a very regulated life that borders on being ascetic as a means of helping a person to progress towards a spiritual level of consciousness.  Traditionally, once household responsibilities (including child rearing) were discharged, the individual (then advanced in age) was encouraged to renounce the world and go to the forest and live as a sannyasin.  It is worth noting that this renunciation of all interest in material or worldly affairs is not often recommended for young people, but is seen as the proper use for the later years of one’s life when one is in the last stage of his life.  In Theravada Buddhism (also known as The Lesser Vehicle, the earlier form of Buddhism), the monastic life is encouraged with strict rules governing one’s conduct.  In Christianity, the monastic life was promoted for both men and women (in convents) for centuries during the Middle Ages.  In fact, lifelong celibacy was thought to be better and more pleasing to God than the married state by the Catholic Church (per The Council of Trent).  St. Augustine’s sexual pessimism still influences many Christians in their thinking about sex within marriage.  (Certain elements from ancient pagan schools of thought entered Christianity in the late 4th century and these are in large part responsible for the sexual pessimism and hatred of pleasure directed at sex within marriage for centuries in Western Christianity.  A more detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this essay, but we can say that this pessimistic and negative view of sexual love within marriage is not authentically Christian.)  Nietzsche, in his Genealogy of Morals, spoke of the Christian fathers as being “in horror of the senses”.

brief discussion

The message from the world’s religions seems to be that sensuality makes it difficult to make spiritual progress and thus we see the promotion of monastic living and even ascetic renunciation of the worldly life.  In some religious sects, the thought in one’s consciousness at the time of bodily death determines the conditions of one’s next birth.  Thus, the cultivation of spirituality and the complete rejection of the sensual during their life helps adherents increase the likelihood of a birth into the spiritual universe (as they will more likely be entertaining spiritual thoughts when they pass from this world).

Of course, one may opine that the absence of sense gratification or worldly attachments in one’s life does not by default make one spiritual.  One may wonder how spiritual are these legalists (clerics) who run organized religions around the world.  There needs to be a conscious and willful cultivation of a spiritual outlook by the individual seeker.  It bears repeating, mere absence of sense gratification does not make one spiritual.

For the individuals who lack self-control and temperance, who have serious difficulty with practicing moderation in their actions, then there is a danger in straying from the spiritual path because of the enticements of worldly pleasures.  Many such individuals do not seriously attempt making spiritual progress because of the onerous requirements of self-discipline and self-control.  They often over indulge in sense gratification and are living at a very low, even animalistic, level of consciousness.

The question is how best to deal with the pull of the senses so they do not derail our efforts in spirituality.  We can try to suppress the sensual appetites, or we can choose to give these appetites a constructive, moral outlet and satisfy these at regular intervals.  We can be the master of our appetites and not permit these to master us.  Trying to suppress our sensual appetites for a lifetime is a rather difficult task and few can succeed with it.

Within a loving marriage, sex is natural and sex is good.  For believing Christians, God created our sexuality and God does not make mistakes.  (The “lust” that St. Augustine vehemently condemned in marital lovemaking was mere sexual arousal and sexual desire.  Lust involves covetousness.)  As we now know how human reproduction actually works and are no longer burdened by an erroneous Aristotelian understanding of procreation, we see that sex in humans is not solely for procreation.  The sexual love and its expression helps to bond the spouses to each other and makes marriages stronger.  Thus, there is no shame in the healthy and loving enjoyment of each other in sexual intimacy.  (As well, frequent lovemaking in your marriage will not somehow make you selfish.  You either had a giving nature or a selfish nature already before you married.  If you are more of a taker, more to the selfish end of the spectrum, purposely work at being more giving of yourself.)

We do not see that sensual experience and enjoyment are an absolute obstacle to spiritual development for the individual.  A person can maintain a spiritual level of consciousness and be a passionate lover with his/her spouse.  But, there is the real danger of making an idol or false god out of sense gratification.  We see that all around us today in the decadent, post Christian West where people wear their sexuality on their sleeve so to speak.  As moral living is necessary in addition to faith (Jesus’ example and teachings in the Gospels trump the Paulist teaching that faith alone saves us), make sure not to make a false god out of sense gratification.

other relevant factors to consider

The pleasure of the lovers within the covenant of marriage is not merely nor solely physical.  There are enriching and gratifying emotional, psychological and even spiritual components of their lovemaking to be sure.  (So we see that celibacy is also a renunciation of the emotional pleasures of companionship.)  Yet, the enjoyment of the exciting and pleasurable physical sensations the spouses share and give to each other in their intimate sexual encounters need not trap them into identifying with the body and losing their spiritual sense.  Just being aware of the danger itself can help individuals avoid this pitfall.

As well, it must be recognized that sex is a very powerful drive and it does not do well at the extremes.  The very destructive excesses of the hedonistic and morally nihilistic sexual revolution do not need cataloging here.  The effort, the ongoing struggle to avoid sexual intimacy for the entire course of one’s adult life is not something that more than a relatively few individuals in each generation can undertake and master.  In fact, for many persons the required effort and struggle prove to be a very great distraction such that celibacy for these persons has a higher cost than a benefit for them.

We respect the right of the individual to choose for himself or herself whether to marry or to be celibate/ascetic.  However, albeit an ascetic life is one’s choice, those who choose the ascetic path ought not be prideful nor arrogant, nor with a holier than thou attitude hold to a contemptible or condescending view of non-ascetics.

In passing, we point out that the purpose of sexual morality was not to limit sexual activity as a means of attaining to the spiritual life for the individual.  The real purpose of sexual morality, as previously discussed on this blog (October, 2014), is to safeguard the family – both the spouses and the children.  Sexual morality promotes and protects marriage, and by extension protects the family as the basic social unit of human society.  However, when sexual morality is warped and taken to grotesque extremes, we see an animosity towards healthy, natural sexual love within marriage on the part of religious authorities.

conclusion sans nuance

We do not see where the enjoyment of a healthy, loving and mutually fulfilling sexual relationship with one’s spouse is an impediment or obstacle to making spiritual progress and cultivating a spiritual level of consciousness.  In fact, with the physical appetites satisfied, one is freed from the nagging of the flesh to concentrate more fully on spiritual progress.  (A person who eats regularly is not obsessing over where his next meal is coming from.)  Be sure not to become like a glutton who over indulges, but enjoy and share good sex frequently with your spouse.

Our advice for married couples is to nurture and cultivate your spirituality each and every day.  (If needed, set aside or make some time each day for this.)  As well, nurture your love for your spouse through lovemaking free of fear or guilt that it will lead you from the spiritual path or that your lovemaking will somehow corrupt you.  By making the ongoing effort on the spiritual path and being aware of the dangers, you can consciously keep yourself on the spiritual path and not lose your spiritual level of consciousness.  Being spiritually minded is not incompatible with being sexual within your marriage.  To assert the contrary, is to indulge in an unfounded sexual pessimism that contemporary individuals, both Christians and non-Christians, are rejecting.

copyright 2017 – larrysmusings.com

4 thoughts on “spirituality, asceticism, and sensuality

  1. Great essay, Larry.

    As a Zen practitioner (and card-carrying ascetic) I find that the practice of asceticism is not so much an abrogation of sensuality as it is a transcendence; Sex is neither a distraction, nor is it a prime mover. It’s an irrelevance.

    WAY more interesting to study ballistics tables for the next session of long-range interdiction. The Zen of the Long Rifleman.

    “Target engaged…target down” is far more satisfying than “How was it for you?”

    I rather suspect that I am a statistical outlier.

    • Thanks Andrew for your insightful comment. Yes, you likely are a statistical outlier. 😉 For the people who can transcend the sensual, I say more power to you. Srila Prabhupada (1896 -1977), the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), used to write in his many paperback books that he tried to get young people to have a higher taste and to seek spirituality in place of sensual enjoyment. In brief, if a person devotes their attention and energies to spiritual practices and disciplines then he or she would find in time that they no longer had much interest in the sensual. His followers take on some tough regulative principles such that sex within marriage is only allowed once a month (just after ovulation). Sex at any other time is considered “cheating”. It is clear that this is the view that sex is only for reproduction.

      I need to be more serious about my zen, too. For me, perhaps it is a case of the zen of blogging. Past regrets burden me, so I will have to learn better to let go of these. Life, the terrible, wonderful process, is the ultimate koan.

  2. Pingback: spirituality, asceticism, and sensuality | larrysmusings – rudolfblog

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