A Liberated Relationship To Sexuality

July 26, 2010

It’s not because of lack of material that I haven’t written in such a long time – it’s rather too much of it and not enough time to digest it all here. Life has a way of coming up with powerful, beautiful and subtle as well as frightening and overwhelming things in a way that makes the mind and our understanding look like snail-mail.

So to make up and gain a bit more breathing room – I still need to urgently finish the German version of the book! –  I am going to post a piece my friend Elisa has written about her experience of celibacy – something rather unusual these days. Here she is. Thanks Elisa!

A Liberated Relationship To Sexuality

By Elisa Mishory

As a student of Andrew Cohen’s I spent six years in a formal celibacy practice that transformed me into a sane human being. Having grown up in Los Angeles in the 1970’s, I had had a very “liberal” education on sex. Though I didn’t feel at home as a “valley girl”, in many respects that is indeed what I was. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were driving forces in LA culture, and in my peer group it was anathema to reach your Sweet Sixteen still, well, ‘sweet and innocent’. This sexually charged environment was reinforced by my experience as an only child of a single mother with nearly no male family members, which left me feeling starved for male attention. And then there was my first high school job working as a cashier in a large men’s clothiers, and needless to say, my Sweet Sixteen was right on schedule!

Following high school and months of solo travel, I attended a very progressive California University. In those days at the University of California Santa Cruz, the co-eds studied naked in a big meadow next to our co-ed apartments, and women strutted around campus unselfconsciously topless. Though this was the end of the 70’s, in Santa Cruz the free love era of the 60’s lived on. I had relationships, but they tended to be brief, dramatic, or a combination of both. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself at the time, the whole arena of sexual relationships was empty and traumatic.

At the age of 31 I met Andrew Cohen while traveling in India. Though I was pursuing spiritual teachings, I wasn’t looking for a spiritual teacher… but when I heard Andrew speak I knew that he was the embodied answer to the authenticity and integrity I had longed for since childhood. He immediately clued in to my excessively sensual relationship to life and suggested celibacy to me early on. It was a shocking notion to me, and not something I was readily willing to consider. As unsatisfying as my sexual relationships ultimately tended to be, my identity as a woman was completely tied up with my sense of sexual power.  I still believed that someday I’d find “the one” who would make me happy, despite the rather clocklike recurrence of bad endings. It just seemed so “unnatural” to give up sex.

I remember a very significant conversation I had with Andrew, about six months after I’d moved into one of the group houses in Marin County, where Andrew lived and taught. I had just returned from a cross-country sales trip for my fledgling business, and was frustrated with myself for having succumbed to a meaningless one-night stand. I went to speak with Andrew and ask to become celibate, as by this point I felt the only way I was going to gain control over myself would be to more or less lock myself away in this formal practice. (In those days, celibate practitioners in Andrew’s community shaved their heads to reinforce the renunciation and to take time out from the “image” game, and I felt that this would effectively curtail my ability to play the field.) Andrew’s response to me was completely thoughtful and caring. He told me that renunciation was not something one could impose on oneself, that I would never succeed that way, but that I should just start to pay attention to what was driving me—what was motivating my choices. This advice was a watershed for me. I started to get in touch with a variety of psychological motivations that actually had nothing to do with sex. No wonder I wasn’t getting what I really wanted – I hadn’t even been straight with myself about what I was really after! And then I started to see how conditioned and unfree I truly was. When sexual impulses arose, I had such a limited range of responses. I acted like a robot—quite predictable—a pawn of biological forces. The longing to have the freedom to respond as a whole human being and not just as a woman with an out of control libido, led me to a genuine desire to take time out from the whole arena of sexuality.

What makes Andrew one of the most powerful teachers and guides for this practice is his own deep inquiry and exploration into the topic of sexuality, as well as his profound integrity.  I seriously doubt that there are many communities (if any) – spiritual or otherwise, that have had more sexual integrity than EnlightenNext. In more than 20 years there has been almost no sexual corruption among Andrew’s students whatsoever, and that is only due to Andrew’s lead. He has spoken often about the overwhelming power of the sexual impulse, about how much humility one must have in the face of it, and of the tremendous benefit of taking time out to gain perspective. One need only look to the number of enlightened teachers in the 20th Century who were brought to their knees by indulging in inappropriate sexual relations with their students. And the Catholic Church is the latest example. There is simply so much cynicism in the world today because people have not seriously looked into the whole arena of sexuality for themselves.

I never dreamed I’d spend a full six years as a formal celibate, and honestly, most of the time it was extremely challenging. We discovered, surprisingly, that women struggle much more in the practice than men do. Men may believe that if they don’t have sex they’ll die, but once they committed to the practice, they had more integrity than the women. Andrew was often stunned that the women would continue to dress immodestly, or that our conversations in celibacy meetings would be anything but “cool” in relationship to this hot topic, or that we would blatantly break the practice by satisfying ourselves.  He wouldn’t hesitate to berate us quite sharply… always with a view to the fact that this practice, when taken absolutely seriously, could have the power to enlighten. And there was no sense in doing the practice if one wasn’t making every effort to act with integrity.

In my time as a celibate we never really embraced the true renunciate life as Andrew envisioned it, free from wanting and gender identity. Nonetheless, the practice of renunciation (because it definitely required practice) strengthened me more than any other spiritual practice I’ve done before or since. It gave me a core of self-respect where there had been none, and has truly afforded me a liberated response to the sexual impulse rather than the robotic and conditioned response I described before. It gave me backbone and humility. Now I can’t imagine a life where I had’t had the opportunity to experience the liberating power of renunciation.

There is so much to be said about the freedom that comes from ceasing to identify with sexual power, and how much confidence is gained by learning to sit still through the fires of desire and rest in coolness. Andrew always said that celibacy and relationship should ultimately be one and the same practice, and after three years in a wonderful relationship, I now understand what Andrew was always pointing to. Gone is the attraction to drama and destructive passion, and in its place are trust, care, and the freedom from needing another person to “complete” me.

While I ultimately decided to leave Andrew’s formal community a couple of years ago, this practice lives in me, and it often occurs to me that if I had not met Andrew and learned the beauty of celibacy, I would most likely have been destined to repeat the mistakes of my mother, grandmother, aunts and friends, victimized by the ferocity of the sexual impulse, instead of living a liberated relationship to it. 

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