Sexuality and Spirituality

By Manu Rheaume

March 4, 2021

The amount of bullshit around sexuality and spirituality is huge.  Within the Buddhist community, there’s been a number of teachers that have all gone down because they did everything from making inappropriate sexual advances on students to flat-out rape.  I’ve seen everything firsthand from very senior Buddhist monks watching porn on their phones, gay monks messaging me hoping to get lucky, to a number of other disturbing things.  It seems like most westerners are almost clueless on this topic as a whole and very often get manipulated because of it.

With that said, my intention here isn’t to make a traditional Buddhist point that all sex outside of marriage is bad or that if everyone just repressed all their sexual desires the world would be a better place.  The desire for sex is probably one of the strongest drives within a human being and I don’t think this question has a simple answer.

There have been many times I’ve talked to people about my own struggle with lust just to have them come back and tell me to try tantric sex;  which usually means slow sex with some eye gazing and some “mindfulness” mixed in, which has no relationship to any legit spiritual teaching I’ve ever seen.  To me, this always seemed like telling an alcoholic to just be more aware of the beer when he drinks it.

Almost every great saint I can think of, with the exception of just a handful of people, were celibate.  That handful of people I know of had either a spiritual lineage in the Kashmir Shaivite tradition or Tibetan Buddhism.  The one other exception to this was someone who was already married prior to following the spiritual path, but after reaching higher states of consciousness, they usually claim to have stopped all sexual activities.  I believe there is a legit way in which sex can help in reaching higher states of consciousness; I just think it comes after you’ve already mastered celibacy and comes with a lot of risks.

Now that I’ve said what spirituality and sexuality aren’t, I’m going to try to give my own take on what it is. The first distinction that has to be made is sexuality in its purest form transcends the physical.  The promise of spiritual work is that we don’t need anything outside of ourselves; the more that our happiness is dependent on things outside ourselves, the greater amount of suffering because outside circumstances are always changing.  Therefore, everything which is sexual and leads you outside of yourself should be categorized as LUST. With that said, hypothetically, if lust is overcome, you could have sex, it just so happens that once lust is overcome and the higher energies are experienced, I think much of its appeal is lost.

One of my biggest disappointments with Buddhism, and almost all spiritual teachings as a whole, is that no one seems to really be able to address this topic in a way that ever seemed to really work for me.  In Buddhism, if you’re struggling with lust you’re often told to meditate on the different parts of the body, like skin, hair, bile, urine, etc. Then you contemplate how there is nothing intrinsically attractive in them and try to develop disgust in order to balance out the cravings.

While apparently this has worked for some (even though I haven’t talked to one person that said it’s worked for them) and in spite of my best efforts, I found that no matter how much disgust I developed for the body it seemed to just get fetishized in some new way. Also, I think this doesn’t work because it tends to further polarize the issue which leads to generating more shame and guilt.

Some of the best advice I got was from a Sri Lankan monk here in Los Angeles who I had confessed to having issues with women, porn and lust in general. What he told me was to not feel guilty, to let go of the shame and that it was ok, just keep working at it little by little. Ever since then, that has more or less been my approach.

The number one thing that has always bothered me about spirituality and sexuality is that people are so dishonest about it, not just to others, but to themselves.  I think most people can’t admit to themselves that ideally they would like to overcome lust while it still has a strong grip over them because the guilt and shame that would result is crushing.

On a personal level, I’ve been trying to working hard free myself from porn and sexual imagery on social media.  As a guy who has struggled with lust, it’s been an uphill battle and one that I’ve had to learn won’t be won without failing and trying again repeatedly.

When it comes to dating, I think I would be better off finding a partner who shared my passion for spirituality, but so far I haven’t found that person.  In general, I’ve found that since I’m dealing with a real person when dating, it’s a lot healthier than dealing with just images on a computer, but of course, it comes with the risk of hurt feels and the complexities of relationships.  I’ve talked to a number of guys who see porn as a way to manage their own lust, but if the goal is to be able to see the divinity within ourselves and others, I think this is feeding the problem rather than managing it.

If there is anything I would like people to take away from this article, it's two things. One, know that if you are struggling with lust, it doesn’t make you higher or lower than anyone else.  Myself and so many others that have been on the spiritual path for long periods of time still struggle with it.  Everyone is different and tend to have one (sometimes two) major spiritual issues that will be what they struggle with for the bulk of their spiritual path (anger, greed and delusion being other examples).

Second, don’t let the pressure of your spiritual ideals crush you or make you think that something is wrong.  Any time we set a goal for ourselves, take losing weight for example, we will start to feel the pressure to eat a certain way or exercise. This pressure may be uncomfortable, but it’s part of growing, it’s part of the process.  Too often people are under the impression that if you are trying to attain some type of goal but aren’t feeling great doing it, something is wrong, but it’s not true. Keep your spiritual ideal sharp in your mind and learn to be kind to yourself like a baby puppy that needs training.

In conclusion, every week I will be putting out a new article and then a couple of days later I’ll release a video talking about the topic. I’m looking forward to the feedback and I wish you all the best.  May you all be happy, peaceful and liberated.