Sex, Drugs, And Alcohol

I’m about to open up a can of worms. This is a loaded subject that can be controversial and is often avoided but sex, drugs and alcohol are such huge parts of our society that I want to give my two cents. I want to emphasize that the following thoughts are mine alone and not those of Goenka or Vipassana meditation. Think of this as me combining my meditation and life experience into a set of beliefs that help me live my day-to-day life.

Lets start with drugs and alcohol because I think they’re easier to navigate. The joy of alcohol is that it numbs your sensations so you can disconnect from reality for a little while. By escaping from some of these deeper challenges one can feel a little more free to let loose and have fun. The problem is that those experiences are built on a false base that is gone by morning. Once the buzz is gone your real problems return.

This technique is about slowly chipping away at those real problems through a constant awareness of reality as it truly is. When you’re intoxicated you lose this connection which causes you to develop stronger attachments and deeper misery. This seems like a trade-off between short term and long term happiness but as you observe the experience of intoxication through your sensations you start losing hold of the belief that you’re enjoying yourself. It definitely took me some time to stop drinking after learning this technique but I haven’t drank in over a year and I don’t think too much about it anymore.

Sex is a whole different can of worms for me.  The third precept is “to abstain from sexual misconduct.” Sexual misconduct is ambiguous to say the least. In the 10 day discourse Goenka defines this as following celibacy during the course but as abstaining from rape and adultery in the world. The bar is raised in the 3 day course and to host an official group sitting to no sexual activity outside of a committed relationship. If you become more committed to the path by becoming a monk you’re expected to be completely celibate for the rest of your life. This is a huge sliding scale to navigate as a lay person.

One of my challenges is understanding this as a biology graduate student. Evolution has taught me that we are just highly evolved animals and animals need to have sex to reproduce. This is a natural part of the human life cycle. While I can see how people can abuse sex in different ways it’s very hard for me to accept that sex is an attachment that I need to be liberated from.

So on one course I asked an assistant teacher, “What is the difference between human nature and animal nature?” He responded, “Humans have the ability to change their nature and animals don’t.” I thought this was a great answer and it struck a chord in me that has led me to develop this completely made up metaphor that helps me quickly process real life situations so I can make real-time choices. This is not based on anyones teaching. It’s just something that makes enough sense to help me laugh and make a decision.

So far we have a model where animals are living in a lower realm than humans. Buddha also talks about devas which are living in a higher realm than humans. I don’t know anything about what devas actually are so I have an image of devas living in something like heaven. They don’t have physical bodies and are beyond the need for sensual pleasures. So now I visualize that humans are in a state in between devas and animals meaning we can experience life through both types of awareness. When I have a sexual urge, my animal nature is more prominent and when I’m deep in meditation my deva nature is stronger. As a human I can choose which type of sensations to cultivate. They’re both natural but the direction of the devas will lead to long-lasting peace and equanimity and the direction of the animals will lead impulsive emotional actions. Sometimes I feel that living like an animal would be more fun but I can also see the benefit for myself and all living beings to transition to a state beyond these emotional responses.

I’m not sure if this is helpful or if it even makes sense but it’s a good model to help me think through all of the emotions I experience on a daily basis. I hope some aspect of it can also be helpful to you.

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About Ryan Shelton

While I'm currently married to a beautiful woman while teaching physics at Padua Academy, these descriptors fail to capture the totality of my adventurous life. I have hiked over 1700 miles, traveled to 5 continents, managed a bakery, started a meditation center, counseled troubled teens, attended Duke, UNC, and Harvard, protected forests as a wildland firefighter, volunteered thousands of hours with Americorps, rafted the Grand Canyon, SCUBA dived on the Great Barrier Reef, and continues to find new adventures. I hope my writing encourages you to pursue your dreams and be the best version of yourself while supporting your communities to work together to solve the current challenges in our world.

12 thoughts on “Sex, Drugs, And Alcohol

  1. A question I have been contemplating is (using your metaphor): by attempting to choose our deva nature above our animal nature, are we rejecting our animal nature? Is it a part of who we are as a whole that should be accepted? Or is it something to escape?

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    • Always remember, acceptance does not equal resignation. Accept your nature for what it is at this moment. This is truth. “Should” is a confusing word, but one thing you should never do is reject reality. In choosing to develop deva nature, one should not deny animal nature that still exists. I don’t think it should be framed as an attempt to escape animal nature – the nature is there, fine. The question, then, is which nature to pursue? Ryan’s example of animal nature is a sexual urge, which is really just a desire. If animal nature is defined by craving, then I think the answer is clear.

      Can sex become an activity in which two people come closer to truth and right understanding, together? I don’t know. But as long as sex is about satisfying craving, or even expressing romantic love (which is really just craving for a person), it can’t. So I think the animal nature-type sex is something we ought to try and transcend. For monks, the whole issue is probably just too much of a distraction. For a lay meditator, if you’re in a committed relationship, at least you’re in a setting to explore non-craving sex. But it’s really, really hard to have sex without craving and I don’t have the slightest idea how to go about it.

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  2. Due to Vipassana and trying to live a spiritual life I haven’t had a drink or a drug for 7.5 years and nor do I have the desire to either which I am extremely grateful for. I can really relate what Trygve has said about the craving for sex. When I am meditating I’m able to observe the cravings arise and pass with an objective mind. When not meditating I find it a lot harder to do so. Fortunately I’ve been in a committed relationship for many years now so I am able to do exactly what Trygve says and explore non-craving sex… but believe me I have a lot of room for growth in this area lol.

    Thanks for the posts Ryan 🙂

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  3. A very important factor in this discussion is that, according to the dhamma, it is only from the human realm that one can find liberation. (“The precious opportunity of a human life” is the first of the ‘four thoughts that turn the mind’.) Which would imply that being fully human is a good thing.

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  4. So what if you’re not in a committed relationship? Then I think it gets a little harder. You don’t want so suppress your cravings but you don’t want to act on them either. This subject has gotten a lot of reads so it’s obviously a topic of interest and difficulty.

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  5. Hi Ryan! I just discovered this blog and I’m so grateful that someone is doing this. This is beautiful and your words sound very real and honest.

    About this particular post I’d like to share something I read a few days ago by Robert Augustus Masters. He is a psychotherapist and his work has been helping me make a lot more sense of my Vipassana practice even though his approach is purely psychological and he doesn’t mention any particular technique. Here is his 2 cents about this issue:

    “Sexual maturity’s morality is not an externally imposed should, but rather a kind of internal compass rooted in wakefulness, compassion, and a clear view of our conditioning, reached through having ceased to eroticize our wounds and unmet needs, no longer burdening sex with the obligation to make us feel better or more secure.”

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  6. I think that the more sexual you are, the lesser loving you will be. By practicing Vipassana slowly uncontrolled sexual arousal vanishes. And the people around you find you more loving. Remember sex is not bad, it is the unbalanced mind which makes is bad. Once you mind is balanced craving towards sex vanishes and you would be able make love willingly.

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  7. I can’t thank Ryan enough to initiate this thread. This is the constant tussle I am faced with. Abstinence form sexual misconduct is the only precept I struggle to continue to keep or rather gets broken first when I carry on practising Shila after a course. I am vegetarian, and rarely ever have craved for alcohol.

    I might drop a bombshell when I say that I am a gay man and find it difficult to keep the precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct. Once this precept is broken, then it is easy to break (or rather not keep) the abstinence from intoxicants (only alcohol in my case).

    I would like to be in a stable relationship but it is difficult to meet the right person (Mr Right! = A Vipassana meditator). I think once someone is in a monogamous and committed relationship and if both partners are meditators, it is quite possible that passion will convert into non-craving sex as some of the contributors have explained. And slowly with continued practice, there is no trace of passion but only compassion 🙂

    I am in my late thirties and am positive that before I enter the fifth decade (40!), I would have succeeded in defeating the ‘Mara’ of passion. Wish me luck!

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