The world’s religious and spiritual traditions acknowledge the powerful, sometimes overwhelming, biological drives for food, for territory, for status and power, and for sex. We see these same instincts at work throughout the animal kingdom.
Spiritual traditions recognise these biological drives and suggest strategies to manage and contain them.
Monks, nuns and priests of all religions take vows of celibacy.
More extreme, in Christianity there are flagellants who whip their own bodies. There are some Shiite Muslims who also self-flagellate. And Hinduism too has yogis who perform various weird acts of bizarre self-harm.
All of these dramatic strategies are attempts to contain the instincts of the flesh.
Samuel Johnson, our great eighteenth century essayist and also a committed Christian, realistically commented on all this:
‘Mortification is not virtuous in itself, nor has any other use, but that it disengages us from the allurements of sense.’ [The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia]
But it is not realistic, is it, to envision the Houses of Parliament or Hollywood studios as places inhabited by nuns and monks, who authentically practice, abstinence, self-restraint and mortification of the flesh? (Is this what Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey are pretending to do when they go for residential therapy?)
Many years ago I had a good friend who was a 1960s Swinging London groupie into sex, drugs and rock and roll. She then disappeared out of my life for a few years. When she reappeared a decade later she had transformed and become a Buddhist nun. By the time I met her she had kept to her vows, including celibacy, for seven years. She was authentic.
Obviously there was a question that I was dying to ask her.
What – I asked her have you done with your libido, with your animal instincts?
She smiled and responded that she had followed the counsel of her Abbess who gave her very simple advice:
Notice the arousal, but do not wallow in it.
Notice the instinct, but give it no energy.
Notice and move swiftly on.
This is useful advice for all of us, isn’t it, when we are aroused and might behave in a dishonourable, inappropriate or bullying way.
Notice the arousal.
Give it no energy.
And move swiftly on.