Is Sex More Important Than God?
By Andrew Cohen
The following article is adapted from Andrew Cohen’s newly released book Living Enlightenment
What a predicament — sex and spirituality! This is a tough nut to crack, and I wonder if anybody has really cracked it satisfactorily, even after thousands of years. Of course, if we want to be free, it’s not sex itself that is the problem, but our relationship to it. The perennial question is: If we have sincere spiritual aspirations, then what is the best position to take in relationship to one of our most basic instincts?
Well — and this is the fun part — it all depends who you ask! For example, even within a single tradition like Buddhism, there are completely contradictory schools of thought. The Tantric Buddhists tell us that it is impossible to achieve enlightenment without practicing sexual yoga, while the Theravada Buddhists tell us that we’ll never reach the higher stages of enlightenment unless we transcend the sexual impulse altogether.
What a confusing business! But the truth is, for most of us on the spiritual path, esoteric questions like these, as intriguing as they are, are really superfluous. Why? Because the greatest challenge for most of us, in relationship to sexuality at least, is just not to make a mess of it, or as they say in the East, create more karma. But that sounds like a tall order if even most of the big gurus can’t walk the straight and narrow.
And if they are apparently confused about the right relationship to sexuality, what are the rest of us mere mortals supposed to do? Forget about the whole thing? Impossible. Face it directly and try to come to terms with it? Sounds good, but who has the courage and heroic spirit necessary to really look into the eye of the tiger of sexual desire without their whole world falling apart?
You see, so many of us open-minded, freethinking characters really are squares when it comes to this particular mega life issue. What does that mean? It means that we don’t want to look at the whole question too closely or too personally because for most of us, sex is more important than God.
The promise of perfect happiness and deep contentment that the sexual experience represents creates a whole universe of attachment and selfhood that is far too important to us to be questioned. And we just don’t want to rock that boat. But when looking into the eye of this awesome tiger, we really do have to make the effort to find our own way.
Free from Attachment
The sexual/romantic experience is one of the most confusing areas of human life and seems to be the hardest to get clear about. You see, the sexual/romantic experience almost always creates profound attachment — deep emotional and psychological attachment. That is its nature. It is not a free ride — unfortunately. And, therefore, unless we get our priorities clear, it’s almost inevitable that that attachment will quickly become more important to us than our own potential liberation in this life. I hear so many people say, “We want to pursue freedom together,” but what that almost always means is that holding on to the intensely personal experience of sentimental attachment is their first priority — not the experience of profound inner freedom.
From the perspective of enlightenment, to be free means to be free from attachment. Attachment means, “I have something.” But to be free means, “I have nothing.” You see, when you hold on to absolutely nothing, you are free — automatically. And the truth that liberates is the profound recognition of just that fact — your own natural state is already free. The only thing that keeps us in bondage is the unquestioned belief that there is something fundamental missing from our own self. So out of ignorance of our own natural state, we bind ourselves to people and things, convinced that through creating attachment we will find happiness and contentment. But it never works that way, because where there is attachment, there is always fear of loss. And where there is fear, there can never be real happiness or deep contentment.
It is the revelation of enlightenment itself that shows all of this directly to us — the perennial truth that real happiness and the only lasting contentment lie within us as our own True Self, our own natural state, already full and complete as it is. But in this unenlightened world, we are all deeply conditioned to believe that happiness and contentment lie somewhere outside our own self. If we truly want to be free, we renounce that way of thinking. We give it up because we have had intimations of a profound happiness that is already present deep within our own self, a lasting contentment that will be ours only when we finally stop looking for it anywhere else.
Now, many people tend to misinterpret what I am saying whenever I speak about this particularly challenging topic. It’s very revealing. This is such a loaded issue for most of us. And as I said earlier, it’s very difficult to see clearly into this area of the human experience, especially when it relates to ourselves. So what I try to do is present the facts. Once again, the definition of spiritual freedom is freedom from attachment. Sex creates attachment —that’s all there is to it. That is why there is almost always an inherent conflict between the longing for inner freedom and the karmic consequences of the sexual/romantic experience. Therefore, the big question is: If enlightened freedom is freedom from attachment, then what are we all going to do about the relentless nature of sexual attraction?
There have been widely differing answers to this perennial question that have been offered to men and women throughout the ages. On one extreme, we have been encouraged to use the sexual experience itself as a vehicle for self-transcendence and, on the other, we have been told that if we want to be liberated men and women, we have to renounce the sexual experience altogether. I believe that if we want to be free, we must think very deeply about these matters for ourselves. We can’t naïvely assume that there is a simple, ready-made answer to such a complex and loaded question. And if we are sincere, we have to be willing to bear the burden of that complexity on our own shoulders and figure it out for ourselves. If even enlightened masters have come to such contradictory conclusions about this fundamental issue, then it just points us back to ourselves and our own honest inquiry into one of life’s most challenging questions.
In the end, if you want to be free, then all you need to know is that free means free from attachment. That simple fact transcends the relative matter of whether you’re engaging in a sexual relationship or not engaging in a sexual relationship. If you face that spiritual truth unflinchingly, then you will be looking into the heart of the matter for yourself. And that takes a lot more courage than blindly accepting someone else’s conclusions.
The Promise of Perfection
So what does it mean to give up attachment? It means recognizing for ourselves that the promise of perfect happiness and blissful fulfillment inherent in sexual desire is overwhelmingly deceptive. It means that we are very clear about the difference between the personal bliss of the romantic interlude and the impersonal ecstasy of spiritual freedom. It means that we choose to renounce personal affirmation for the ecstatic contentment that emerges spontaneously when we finally stop looking outside our own self for the experience of completion. But realistically, in a world like ours that is incessantly propagating this powerful promise, if we want to be free, we all, to some degree at least, have to be willing to be renunciates! And in this context, renunciation means resisting the temptation to be seduced by the most powerful illusion that there is.
That illusion is what I call “the promise of perfection.” It says: “If I follow this impulse to its ultimate conclusion, I’m going to find perfect happiness and total contentment — I will experience a deep sense of wholeness; I will finally be complete.” We do this over and over again and continue to miss the simple truth that the bliss we experience in the romantic interlude never lasts and ultimately creates painful attachment. And also, it is only when we let go of the promise of perfection that it will become clear to us how, more often than not, the experience of romantic intoxication is fueled by the ego’s need for personal affirmation.
Now, people always ask me, doesn’t this imply that we have to give up the whole thing? And I say, Well, yes and no. Yes, if it means creating more suffocating attachment that only serves to perpetuate the illusory personal world of the separate ego. But no, if the context for personal intimacy and sexual communion is authentic spiritual freedom. That means that we want to be free more than anything else and therefore are more interested in impersonal ecstasy than personal bliss. It means that the context for personal intimacy and sexual communion would be the impersonal — a dimension that is unknown in this world, that is beyond ego and free from attachment.
This impersonal dimension is found inside your own self. When you renounce the endless self-centered concerns of the separate ego and its small personal perspective, then spontaneously you will find yourself there. That is where you will discover an absolute love, a bliss that is empty of attachment and free from the conviction that anything fundamental is missing. And it is that context alone, which is one of inherent fullness and completion, that can make it possible for human beings to come together in personal intimacy and sexual communion in a way that is free from the pain, complexity, and unending confusion that are usually such an inherent part of this area of life.
Copyright by Moksha Press, 2002
Andrew Cohen has been a teacher of enlightenment since 1986. He is the author of numerous books on spiritual life, including the newly-released Living Enlightenment and Embracing Heaven & Earth, and founder of the award-winning magazine What Is Enlightenment? For more information about Andrew Cohen and his teachings, call (800) 376-3210 or visit www.andrewcohen.org .
Return to the May/June Index page