On how to stay celibate

As a life long celibate (by most definitions) I thought it might interest some of you to get a few tips ;) Yes, this is largely a tongue in cheek post, as I’m sure most of you are NOT celibate. Celibacy has a respected history in both Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. Like most people today I have mixed feelings about the institution.

On the one hand I feel the best spiritual teachers are celibate: I have trouble taking Stephen Batchelor and his wife (both former monastics) seriously for instance. On the other: staying away from the issues of relationships, kids and all that does leave more room for ‘spiritual development’ (whatever that means).(#)

For me personally: I stayed celibate to avoid bad relationships, but it has left me lonely. [And no, that is not an invitation... So far men who try to pick me up online are not the kind I'd want to see in real life.]

I’ve heard of celibacy as the cure for sexual addiction too, for instance. It makes sense: nobody expects alcoholics to get cured without staying off alcohol completely either.

On the other hand: as a method for teens to avoid teen-pregnancy I’m not a fan. I think it’s better to educate them and give them condoms.

Without further ado, or those who choose to stay celibate, here are a few pointers:

Well, first of all it helps if you’re simply not attracted to anybody. This is obvious perhaps, but the main issue here isn’t your own attraction, but the mutual attraction that builds up… Nothing more attractive to woman than a man who is attracted to her. This goes both ways of course.

If you ARE attracted to someone it becomes tricky. Monastic robes will keep some women (and men) off, so it diminishes the problem. Still, as the example of the Batchelor’s shows, that won’t kill it off completely.

The first instinct of anybody who has been in this situation will be to ignore the person they’re attracted to. This will work in a bar or in the train station. It will not work if you have to face that person on a regular basis. They will notice that they’re being ignored, start to guess at the causes etc. Still, as a first precaution it is not a bad idea: the other person may simply decide it’s not worth the hassle and lose interest. This will in turn make it easier on you to forget about them.

How tricky ignoring is as a strategy is shown by the fact that one young man of my acquaintance bragged that he used it as a pick up tactic. I won’t go into details, but it worked.

On the other hand: going into a single-sex monastic institution works too of course. Avoiding temptation will keep you safe. However, most monastic institutions I’ve heard of these days do allow women in as students so even that’s no guarantee.

Back to normal life scenario’s: it’s much more effective to just treat that other person as though you really don’t care that much. Greet them casually, talk to them normally, but never let a hint of sexual attraction into your demeanor. Don’t look into their eyes longer than you would anybody else, but don’t avoid their eyes either. Don’t seek them out, but don’t avoid them either.

Again: It’s easier if you really don’t care.

One thing to absolutely avoid is intimacy of any kind. It is not for nothing that Buddhist monks are not allowed to be in a room alone with a woman. Emotional intimacy with the sex you’re attracted to is equally tricky – best avoid it altogether. Emotional intimacy leads to more if both of you are available and the attraction is mutual as well.

This isn’t to say you can’t be casually friendly. Just never cross that line.

It’s not for nothing that facebook is now THE way people become unfaithful to their partners. It starts with a quarrel of course. One of the partners chooses to not talk it through, but grumble to a (single) ex. That leads to emotional intimacy. They decide to meet over coffee and next thing you know, they’re in bed together.

Because the hard part is not being attracted to anybody there are all kinds of meditations in Buddhist texts designed to do just that. Such texts were written by monks for monks avoiding being attracted to women. In the famous Bodhicaryavatara(*) for instance it’s recommended viewing women as consisting of piss and pus and all things vile. Obviously the advice can be adapted to women by recommending they see men that way, gays will also know what to do with this I’m sure.

This is actually a recommended meditation topic! It’s a way of turning sexual energy into meditative energy, but personally I would not go that far. After all (and this is part of the trouble in today’s world) men and women have to work together and it doesn’t help if each side is imagining the other side as consisting of piss and pus etc.

In short – staying celibate is only going to be easy for those few of us who really aren’t attracted to anybody sexually. Yes, I’m told such people exist. For the rest of us: I guess just dealing with that energy as honestly as we can, without hurting anybody, is the best we can do. Celibate or not. Also – but this is off topic – I’m told that an emotionally healthy relationship will help people avoid straying…

#) As I’ve now come to experience Buddhism first hand, I can’t help have a renewed respect for Stephen Batchelor: he deals with the challenges of Buddhism in modernity in a way that’s both honest and well founded.

*) ‘A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life‘ (Bodhicaryavatara) by Santideva. Translated from the Sanskrit and Tibetan by Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications, Ithica, New York USA. This is otherwise a very inspiring text on the Bodhisattva Path. For the scholarly among you: the notes in this edition are great.



[edit Jan. 8th 2012] Since writing the above I was sent “A Couple’s Guide to Sexual Addiction: A Step-by-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust and Restore Intimacy for review. Which really is a great book that will help couples deal with sexual addiction. My Review.[/edit]

  1. I have never, ever considered the possibility of celibacy.

    However, now that you’ve shared this, you have opened my mind to the idea. I’m by no means one who or could practice, but I support you in your journey. *bows*

  2. I like the article. You must have meant ‘pus;’ ‘puss’ is a cat (in American English, and my pocket OED agrees.) When you mentioned monastics without philosophical/religious context, I wonder if you meant in general. In the Orthodox monasteries of the Mt. Athos area of Greece, females are forbidden from the region… I do not know about elsewhere, except at some, monks are priests for a church/chapel where women are allowed, but I doubt they are allowed into the monastery itself. I do not know about all sorts of monasticism, though.

  3. I suspect doing any action out of fear is probably a “bad choice”. Why? Because you are letting fear dictate your life, which is not at all the same as flowing with your life.

    I think if you are sexually attracted to someone, your best bet is to accept it. If you wind up in bed with them, your best bet there is probably to accept that as well. If you never hear from them again, it’s probably best to accept that too.

    I don’t think the universe frowns on sex–even where monks are concerned. I do think that fear, though, for whatever reason, usually causes more harm than good.

    The heart of Buddhism, in my opinion, is accepting who and what you are in all dimensions at any moment.

    • Monastics and Katinka do not seem to do this out of fear, but logical/philosophical/spiritual reasons. I did not always want to be celibate but was anyway–eventually for such reasons. Not all ordained Buddhists must be celibate, but I am not sure any can marry. Some might ‘wind up in bed’ with someone, but I do not agree with that lifestyle; I doubt traditional Buddhist laypeople do either. Marriage is largely a religious idea that in other philosophies involves strange ‘God’ ideas, but it seems part of the point is celibacy unless committed to someone–if one wants to be–is less problematic.

      I agree with Katinka celibate spiritual teachers are best–if they practice/study more, but they might not, and insight varies, and sometimes a layperson-like viewpoint helps. It does seem unhelpful to imagine the opposite gender as disgusting; that might be outdated–or should/does not apply to some traditions. It is unlikely monks would see a Tara bodhisattva (female) that way; why should they think of anyone that way? I do not understand its transmutative power compared to Yoga or philosophical Tantra.

      The article’s suggestions all seem good, but–since I will not commit to a non-vegetarian/vegan so have rarely tried them–I do not know how well they work. Another is to spend most time on something–like studies, philosophy, arts. That and certain Yoga/meditation helps celibacy & chastity (depending on definitions–sometimes switched.)

      I think the heart of Buddha Dharma is a bit less and has other ideas than the above comment’s definition, but I will not claim a definition.

      • “I have never been a celibate. If people believe so, that is their foolishness. I have always loved women – and perhaps more women than anybody else. You can see my beard: it has become grey so quickly because I have lived so intensely that I have compressed almost two hundred years into fifty. ” –Osho

        • It does not seem Osho was a very reliable guru: he owned almost 100 Rolls Royces when he could have used the money for them to help the poor, such as in the Hindu principle of non-possessiveness. He was Hindu or used several spiritual philosophies, but even if he drew from Buddha Dharma he was not exactly Buddhist. I would not take anything he said seriously.

          • 1. He wasn’t Hindu. He was Jain.
            2. He did not own cars. His groupies did.
            3. After a through scrutiny of his talks, he seems to have reiterated many times to look to the direction he is pointing, not at his finger that is being used to point.

    • Personally I’ve come to see learned self-control as essential on the spiritual path. The only way to be responsible about our emotions is to control them, which is not the same thing as to suppress them.

      Express your anger and you risk ruining a relationship. Express your sexual desire and you risk ruining a relationship, starting a healthy relationship as well as starting an unhealthy relationship. Whichever it is: acting on sexual desire is taking a huge emotional responsibility for yourself and the other person.

      Learning self control is not such a bad thing.

      And do remember that when Western psychologists say that sex is healthy, they’re talking about sex in the context of a healthy loving relationship – not the promiscuous kind or the random kind.

      • no their not they are talking about sex period the benefits of endorphin release in bringing down stress and anxiety levels coupled with the cardio vascular benefits, a loving relationship is irrelevent

        • I looked it up. See: http://www.road-to-health.com/64/What_are_Endorphins_.html

          It very clearly says that: “Recent studies, beginning with those of Candace Pert, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins University, have documented the connection between orgasm and endorphins, although ongoing physical contact, and not just sex alone, also helps produce endorphins, along with the hormone oxytocin. Together, they are like natural opiates and help stabilize a relationship between a loving couple by inducing what famed obstetrician Michel Odent, of London’s Primal Health Research Center (whose book, The Scientification of Love, was published in England in 1999 and available through http://www.amazon.co.uk), calls “a drug like dependency.” Although there are many reasons why two people choose to maintain a close and loving relationship, endorphins may be a factor.

          A connection between good sex, endorphins and staying young may exist. In a 10-year study involving 3500 people, Dr. David Weeks, a neuropsychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and author of Secrets of the Super Young (Berkley, 1999) found that men and women who have sex four to five times a week look more than 10 years younger than the average person, who has sex twice a week. Dr. Weeks believes that the pleasure derived from sex was a crucial factor in preserving youth. “It makes us happy and produces chemicals [endorphins and oxytocin] telling us so.” However, he found that indulging in promiscuous sex did not have the same benefits of enjoying loving sex in a long-term relationship, and it was more likely to promote the aging process rather than reduce it.”

          (emphasis mine)

          The same article notes other endorphin producing activities like running and meditation (I can personally attest the positive effect of meditation on my mood).

  4. Did you just actually promote being unnatural? celibacy is a choice not a must…sex is an extension and CONSEQUENCE of relationship,intimacy and love..One CAN NOT avoid the the natural tendency resulting out of love and intimacy..if you do..you go against nature..You have programmed yourself to think that sex is an abuse of some sort..but if both parties agree ..there is no abuse..just consent..there is absolutely nothing wrong with sex..unless you think it means “giving away something precious”..it is not! ..it is merely a JOINT endeavor of communicating that which is verbally not communicate-able.. Now ..I am aware of the fact that men AND women could be merely attracted for sexual reasons..You must understand that even in those relationships NO ONE loses anything! it take two to have sex…
    As far as religion goes..a religion that promotes unnatural behavior should be re-evaluated..just like the term”Holy War”..Sex is not a tool ..it is the overflowing of love and the yearning for intimacy to express that..speak on it when you stop being celibate..

    • Promiscuity is not necessarily more natural, though you may have implied it is. Though it is rare (but not unknown) to hear of celibate animals, a fair number are not promiscuous–neither are all humans.

    • I have no issues at all with sex as a result of love. I would not personally continue to abstain if I fell seriously in love. Of course the difference between falling in love and falling in lust is rather hard to distinguish in practice.

      However, sex as a result of love is an ideal, not a fact. Sex is generally the result of desire. When men go and pay for sex it has nothing whatsoever to do with love.

      When people, men or women, sleep with anybody who will have them – it’s not about love. It’s about desire, it’s about wrong habit, it’s about power too, I think.

      • I think that there are two different issues here. If, like I think Katinka is talking about, one has chosen a spiritual path of the level she appears to be talking about, then celibacy is probably necessary, but of course, no one is forced to take this path. For me, I don’t understand how one can get operate from Higher Self, when one can’t even control one’s lower self!

        If a person chooses not to take the Path at an accelerated level at this time in this life, that’s fine too and for that person, celibacy is not required or expected. I don’t believe in ‘sin’ as such and I don’t believe in eternal Hell, so I guess it is easier for me to see that we all have choices and that if you want to be in a relationship and make love, fine.

        I guess the important thing is to respect yourself and do what you feel is right for you, whilst respecting that others have the same right to be themselves. As long as what you do is not intentionally hurting others, then you are free to do it, and accept the responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

        Ultimately, we can only walk our own path, at our own pace. You walk this path alone in the end. We will all evolve and reach the top of the mountain, but some choose the long and winding round around the mountain, whilst others choose the step path straight up the side and get to the summit quicker. It is a far harder climb though and the choice is for each of us to make.

        Not everyone is ready or willing to be a Bodisattva right now and it is much more honest, in my humble opinion, to be honest to yourself about this, than to delude yourself. Making love has to be better than making war! Celibacy is far easier when one devotes one’s life to spiritual advancement but this must be in order to help Humanity, rather than a selfish desire for spiritual advancement. Love, light and peace, Jools x

        • Actually – I really meant that first paragraph: this is largely a tongue in cheek post, though of course I do share tips for those who try and practice celibacy seriously.

          Apparently the humor is not readily apparent – perhaps because the topic is so controversial.

      • I fully agree with the power part..sex not resulting out of love is psychological sex..look at the act: sex is a mere attempt to reach the point of orgasm..from the outside it looks like a very simple act..if it’s not done out of love it becomes i mind game one plays with themselves to give it more meaning then that. the Sex desire is not a desire of the body , it is actually psychological. that’s why not all men and women have the same desires.
        Self control is only needed when you sold yourself a certain story of what sex with a certain person means to you and you bought it.
        I assure you : ALL IS MIND..it’s either we live there on down on earth .

  5. Sex is the biggest rip-off on the planet. It’s a great way to make babies (its actual purpose), but happiness? I don’t think so. It seems there should be a lot more happy people around if that’s the case.

    Bodies are neither attractive nor non-attractive. When you grasp at forms of any kind…look out. I’ve found the surer way to happiness is to watch my mind, not someone else’s behind.

  6. The quality of men available to me makes it easy to stay celibate. For those who struggle, then don’t do it. Just don’t be a hypocrite and preach to others that they should or give the impression that you are when you’re not.

  7. I believe the first lessons of AA is that there is no “cure” for alcoholism… And although I am not a sex addict, I would probably tend to stay on the side of- there’s no cure for that either…

    Thanks for the post, and if celibacy works for your spiritual development, go get girl (well-don’t in this case, lol!)

  8. I am no expert in Bodhicaryavatara. Viewing the opposite sex as piss and pus is correct if the body is viewed as it cellular / organ components and incorrect if in the form of a person.

    There is a meditation / contemplation on the impurities (asubha bhavana) to control one lustful disposition. Better to do that contemplation than to view the opposite sex as pus and piss…. A very small degree of hate if you are not careful.

  9. Meditation can eventually clarify or “solve” the celibacy corundum. In our lives, it is natural to compartmentalize activities as pleasant or distasteful. But when you begin to examine those activities (your reactions to them) you see they are only mental states. When we have to address an “unpleasant” person or talk about an “unpleasant” topic we will often procrastinate because we have an “aversion” to the activity or experience.

    These “aversions” are mental states, existing completely in our own minds. Likewise all of our “likes” are positive mental states existing entirely in our own minds. So in essence, all of our activities are correlated to auto-generated mental states.

    We like sex, or seduction, because we enjoy the mental state of being aroused. The phenomenon does not have anything to do with another person, it is auto-generated. Attractiveness is not an intrinsic characteristic: because a person is attractive to you does not make them universally attractive. Furthermore, the object of our affection does not even need to be present and we can still feel a mental euphoria.

    With sufficient meditation (or perhaps also by chance), one recognizes these constructs of the mind (mental states) and can begin generating, suppressing or manipulating them at will. When you arrive at this point the sex / celibacy issue simply becomes less compelling and important than it formally was. For the less adept practitioner, celibacy seems like a forced, un-natural form of self-denial (which it is), but for the adept practitioner it simply becomes the more natural state.

    When we try to force the celibacy issue, it is a bit like trying to fall asleep when one is not tired. Failing at the direct route, we then trying to find a short-cut to being tired (counting sheep / meditating on pus, etc), … but sleep comes on its own.

  10. re. Anonymous, 15 Aug 2012 comment:
    I agree that it’s all happening in our mind, but there is with all habits/lifestyles a deeper physiological/neurological/bio-chemical side that we need to understand. When addicts talk about being hit by the ‘Wave’ what they mean is that the body/brain has a certain rhythm of stimulation based on our history of activities. Most people seem totally helpless when the Wave comes and they react blindly. Thus they keep reinforcing their old patterns, thinking that this is natural. But it’s possible to resist the Wave and learn to observe the arising and passing of lust…until it has gone and deep inner peace prevails: A lasting, subtler level of contentment than we imagined possible when we were still being sexually active.

  11. Thank you for your interesting blog.

    The Buddhist meditations can be found in the Samyutta Nikaya 35:127, called the Bharadvaja Sutta. Foulness of the body is the second out of three methods.

    The first is viewing older women as one’s mother, women at a similar age as sisters, and younger women as one’s daughters.

    The third method is restraint of the senses, where one identifies the features (that appear through any sense) that set one off and is careful to not grasp at those features.

  12. Enjoyed your post, and celibacy is ~or should be~ a serious topic for those who wish to sublimate their sexual energy and channel it into spiritual practices. The advent of internet porn and its ubiquitous presence online has become a very serious hurdle for many of us. A very good book by Swami Bhaktipada written in 1988, (Joy of no Sex – http://www.alibris.com/booksearch?qwork=3469501) has stood by me and helped me “reign in” my own impulses. It allowed me to change some bad habits, and hopefully it can help those who are seeking some guidance. Blessings to you and all those who walk the path…

  13. Uhh, thank you for this. I’m a religious (but not buddhist) teen who trying as hard as possible to be celibate but it is difficult (took me a year to quit masturbation). There is so little information on this subject as most people take intercourse and sex as commonplace. If there is any more reading material that can help me not have to completely ignore girls to not lust, that’d be welcome.

    Reading through the comments has been useful