Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Celibate Floats Uneasily on the Sea of Sex

I was walking on a bright sunny May morning today and was struck by how essential sex is to the natural world. I think that a cotton-wood tree was in the neighbourhood, because I could see the white fluff that they use to disperse their seeds all over a part of my walk. There were also flowers all over the place---yellow dandelions, mauve lilac, white lilies-of-the-valley, blue ground ivy and periwinkles, etc. There were also butterflies zipping all over the place---mostly feeding on the dandelions. Birds were singing loudly too.

Of course people walk by this all the time, but I was thinking that from the point of view of evolutionary biology this was literally a massive "light show" of sexual selection in action. The flowers were competing with scent and colour display to attract pollinators. The Butterflies were not only polinating the plants they were feeding on, but the bright colours of their wings were similarly advertising their interest in being polinated themselves. (Butterflies are, when you get down to it, not much more than flying flowers themselves.) And the birds singing were mostly males who are loudly proclaiming their territorial control over prime nesting areas so females may be attracted to nest and reproduce.

Of course, it isn't just animals that get into all of this. Humans do too.

I noticed the "bikers" roaring by on their large, noisy motorcycles. Ultimately, most of their macho posturing boils down to an attempt to attract a certain type of female. As such, there isn't much difference between the loud roars of the Harleys and the rutting calls of a bull moose. Similarly, I passed a young girl who was obviously a bit chilled in her t-shirt, sandals and short cut-offs. But her attempt to show as much skin as possible without breaking the law is also a mechanism aimed at attracting the most "dominant" or "domestic" male possible (depending on the reproductive strategy her DNA had programmed her for), who would hopefully impregnate her, help her buy a house and raise children.

People are hard-wired to be consumed by this stuff. I know that I have spent years and years totally crazy with sexual desire. It is only through a combination of hard, hard discipline, and luck (seemingly bad at the time, perhaps good in the long run) that I have managed to arrive at my current age (51) without having reproduced. I say "luck" because I know that if I had had children I would have had just about everything I currently value taken away from me. I would never have been allowed the time to read, think, practice neidan, write, etc. Instead, I would have had all of my energy sucked into obeying the demands of wife and children.

Even though I have gotten to my present age and have worked hard at telling myself that it would be a disaster to give into the demands of my DNA to reproduce, I still fall prey to the same old delusions once in a while. For example, the other day I met one of the exceedingly small number of single, attractive women I know. I thought to myself, maybe I could ask her out on a date---. But once I got talking to her I quickly remembered why she is still single (whenever she talks, her voice is one long scream informing anyone who listens how damaged she was by her crazy childhood.) I walked away from this brief, but nutty encounter with this woman wondering at the strength of that old DNA voice in my ear that kept me from just walking on by. After all, in a more disinterested mood I could have easily predicted every different element of this interaction.

I've been single most of my life, but I have been involved with women at times. The last relationship lasted almost ten years and only ended a couple years back. One of the more annoying things that my ex once said to me was that "spiritual people", like priests (and I know that she was also referring to me) are like "children" in that in some ways that they are silly and immature. Since she really believed this, I never tried to argue with her about it---I know that there was nothing I could have said to change her mind.

I think that what she was saying in her condescending and inarticulate statement was that she and I live in totally different worlds. For her, having children is absolutely everything in the universe. Since I, and all other spiritual people, are interested in other things that the desire of our DNA to replicate, this means that I have never "grown up" in the sense of entering puberty. This ultimately drove us apart. She moved out of town to be near her daughter and grandchildren. And I am still in my hermitage, trying to push down the feelings of sexual frustration and loneliness that my genetic heritage have programmed into me. We each followed the ultimate value of our lives.

Of course this situation may seem odd to someone with a naive understanding of Daoism. After all, how can it possible be "going with the flow" or "being like water" to live a celibate life when literally every cell in my body wants me to get some woman pregnant? This is where the "Dao of Pooh" stuff falls apart. The fact is that there are practical elements to spiritual practice, and unless a person is so wealthy that they can afford to hire someone to raise the children, do all the housework, and live a life of leisure, it is impossible to find the time to do kungfu while being married or even involved with another person. There is a trade off, of course, and some benefits come from celibacy. But it is a battle none the less.

Having said all of that. Lots and lots of people have no option with regard to sex. There are profoundly ugly people who never have a hope of having a sexual relationship. There are disabled people in the same boat. There are people who are so poor or oppressed that it is not an option either. Every element of sexual frustration also exists with them. Moreover, as for having children, hordes of people who are having children really shouldn't anyway because of the grotesque over population of the earth. So it ultimately is an indulgence to complain about any situation a spiritual person finds themself in.

But that doesn't stop the DNA screaming in my ears----.


Jim714 said...

Dear CWO:

I enjoyed this post. It is rare to find material from the point of view of someone celibate. Our culture does not consider that an option. In fact, I think our culture regards the idea with great suspicion.

I have been married twice; once divorced and once separated by death. I have also lived as a celibate monk decades ago.

In recent years I have lived as a conscious celibate, removing myself from the culture of dating and partner finding. Overall I find it restful, but there are those times when, as you say, DNA asserts its demands in the form of attractions and fantasies and considered possibilities.

One of the ideas I have had for years, but have never quite gotten around to, is a Manual of Celibacy. Since I am a guy, I am thinking specifically of a manual for the celibate male (as I believe the life of celibacy places somewhat different demands on males and females). My point is that if a guy consciously chooses to live a celibate life, that this is a practice. A manual for the celibate male would cover really down to earth topics such as how to handle interactions, how to handle pornography (soft and intense), what kind of diet to avoid (in Buddhism, for example, garlic is considered to be a sexual stimulant), what kind of diet to follow, etc.

Just a few ideas. Enjoyed your post.

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


It took a lot out of me to write this post. I am getting to be an old man, yet I still have a hard time talking about sex in any substantive way. Of course this is a common problem.

I think your idea of a modern, practical manual would be useful.

Just about everything I've ever read or heard about the subject seemed to be pretty much useless.

I remember reading a translation of a Buddhist teaching that admonished men bothered by lust to consider a woman he is attracted to as a rotting bag of excrement. I'm pretty sure that that is not a healthy thing to do!

I also remember hearing a Biblical scholar talking about people who embrace celibacy as a "gift" and talked about her retreats at a nunnery. It struck me that she simply didn't understand the way an institution like the Catholic church can force people to engage in self-denial. (I can't help thinking about Mother Teresa prattling on for decades about how much joy she got from her life when she was complaining to her spiritual director that she felt inside like "a block of ice".)

I simply cannot see how any spiritual practice that leads to such extremes of self-delusion and duplicity with your brothers and sisters can be anything but a pernicious evil.

That's why I try to think of sex in the terms of evolutionary biology. It gets me out of the crazy theological categories that people get stuck in.

On another vein, I think that it really does need to be said that I simply cannot see why sex is per ce a bad thing. It's just that, as a practical rule of thumb that it is incompatible with a religious life. It just takes up too much energy and time.

The odds of finding someone who is also into the same spiritual path is just about nil. In fact, when it comes to finding someone who is pretty much compatible in general is darned diffcult.

There was a British university student who pointed this out using Drake's equation a few months ago. (Drake's is an attempt to outline all the known variables governing how common intelligent life is in the universe: .) Add in the requirement that beyond everything else and that the person needs to also be a nun, and the odds of finding someone are pretty much nil.

Bao Pu said...


Although not celibate, I too have decided not to reproduce. Although I don't really have time-consuming "spiritual practices," I do have lots of interests/hobbies that I don't want to give up. Some people have suggested that this is selfish, that I am self-centred. This may be somewhat true, although having and raising children is not exactly selfless either. Have you seen the movie Samsara? When a man decides to leave his wife and children to pursue spiritual goals, is this selfish? I suppose the Buddha could be excused from this accusation since his goal was to liberate all of humanity, or so we are told.

Anyways, in an overpopulated world, (at least some parts), not reproducing should perhaps be viewed as adaptive behaviour. I believe there are other animals which do it. So, our DNA does not rule us, the environment plays a large role too. (Steven Rose's Lifelines has some good things to say about this.)

With regards to relationships, I indulge, and yes, they take up a lot of time. (Sex itself does not have to take up alot of one's time.) But it is not impossible to find someone who can give you the space you need.

The Rambling Taoist said...

I'm a year older than you. To date, I have not produced any progeny, though I've been married to the same wonderful woman for a quarter century.

Of course, I can't take any credit for maintaining discipline; I have a genetic condition which makes fathering a child an impossibility! Still, I have openly accepted my reality and was lucky enough to meet/marry a woman who didn't desire having a child.

I'm glad we never decided to adopt a child either. I'm sure that parenting is a blessed role for many people. It's simply not one for me.