Breathe: Giving It Up for God
Spiritual celibacy dominated my twenties, bringing me more nourishment, frustration, and bliss than any lover ever had.
I didn’t become celibate on purpose. Like a wild night with an inappropriate partner, it just sort of happened.
And then happened some more, until not having sex was happening so often I decided I was doing it deliberately. I started telling people I was celibate, thinking of myself as celibate, and interacting with men more as friendly nun, less as cute twentysomething. And then I was frustrated that I couldn’t get laid. And then I went back to feeling whole and holy and happy unto myself. Sometimes all within the same day.
It was a confusing time.
It started at the yoga ashram where I spent most of my college breaks.
Strange people would visit the place looking to sweep disciples away from the guru—we were all so spiritually ripe and young and yearning. One man, a whorl of angry charisma and trance-inducing gazes, held court at a cafeteria table after hours. My fellow late-night yogis and I gathered with hot tea to receive his personalized wisdom. “For you,” he said, staring me down in a potent pseudo-enlightened way, “now is a time of brahmacharya” (celibacy).
He told me to spend at least a year without sex; it was time to develop myself and not give my energy away to anyone else, he said. Later, I wasn’t sure if I had been blessed or cursed. But his suggestion resonated somewhere deep—and for much longer than he intended.
At first it was relatively easy. When I returned to college in Wisconsin that fall as a senior, it was a temptationless wasteland: I finished my last year as a semi-inadvertently celibate sex columnist. (There was gossip—”Does Valerie even have sex anymore?”—which was reported back to me with curious glee.) But as soon as I got to my post-graduation vacation on Maui, my lifelong boy-craziness reawakened and I half-tossed my restraint to the salty trade winds. So many cute, tan, barely clad boys. With long hair! Sensitive eyes! And invented spiritual names!
Soon a guy named Adventure swooped into my life on his skateboard, rose-quartz mala beads draped around his neck; he was a Taurus who lived in a rain forest shack. We kissed in a loft above his friends Juniper and Dave, and he talked about Tantra while rubbing my back. Our fling was brief and relatively chaste.
Then there was beautiful, curly-haired George, a model/plumber/artist who lived in a pickup truck with his dog. One night after our shared writing class, I slept in the covered flatbed with him and we cuddled. I woke up the next morning and looked out over the dewy meadow at an honest Maui rainbow arcing over the mountains. My heart ached. I missed myself; emptiness opened. And I thought, I can’t do this anymore—I had to embrace romantic solitude, for real.
All those who choose celibacy have their own rules: One man I know strives to eliminate even sexual thoughts; a woman I talked to taught herself not to flirt, ever; and Gandhi was known for testing the limits of his bramacharya by sharing his bed with half-naked nubile women.
For me it was like learning to ride a unicycle. At first there’s wobbling and the temptation to grab anything just to keep balance, or to jump off so as not to be the freak on the unicycle. But after a while you get a rhythm, and it feels normal and easy, like a good, natural way to travel.
My three-week Maui vacation turned into a three-and-a-half-year stay. I started working at a bookstore called Miracles, moved from a community in the rain forest to a house with Osho and Gangaji followers, and then to a garage in a dry mountain town where paniolos (Spanish cowboys) once lived.
And I continued to make space for light, opening and protecting my heart, repairing the parts of me that felt broken and unblessed. Life was going on.
I was visiting shamans, psychics, and those who talked to angels—but even with them the topic I was avoiding was unavoidable. A channeler told me, “You will meet a man who will heal you.” A bearded palm reader at Miracles looked into my hand and said, “Your big secret is that you are very, very sensitive. You must be very, very careful when choosing men.” Meanwhile, my body was becoming more and more my own. I was dropping weight without trying, the ocean was buffing my skin to an embarrassment of smoothness, my yoga practice became more powered, intense. I painted a mural on my garage-home’s wall. It was of a woman meditating on a cloud, floating in a purple sky, a heart-shaped bindi on her forehead, each of her chakras glowing in its appropriate color. I glued white feathers to her heart. I was reading books with titles like Necessary Losses, Boundaries and Relationships, and The I That Is We. I refreshed my connection with the divine, and began to see it as a place filled with pink light and unconditional love.
My best friend at the time was Christopher. He was the reason I had visited Maui in the first place, and he was at the table that night at the ashram when I was told not to have sex. When we first met he had been a celibate yogi for six years, devoting his energy to the guru, to god, to service.
He believed every Tantric word about how retaining sperm enhances life force. When he was in a relationship, he worried about not “releasing” during sex; when he did, he worried about his kidneys (Chinese medicine says ejaculation can deplete the organ’s chi).
He was vegetarian-skinny, puppy-dog gorgeous, and virtually sexless; easy to be with. Though we rarely touched, we prayed together, meditated together, talked about everything that couldn’t be seen—benevolent spirits, eerie entities, saints with the power to cut the energetic umbilical cords that connect people. He constantly and consistently validated me—told me how he could see my inevitable success as a writer, how happy and complete I would be someday, how my spirit was inspirational in a sassy and real way.
This was his job, it seemed: to make attractive, spiritually inclined, insecure women feel enlightened while rendering himself more neuter, more saintlike with each acknowledgement, each act of “deep seeing” so rare among men. I craved it like candy.
Often, Christopher—at this point out of relationships and back to his old monklike ways—and I would pull someone else into our friendship for a time. Usually, a really good-looking, virile male. The crowning glory of this lot was Ananda. The first time I met him, I cried. It was at the raw-food restaurant where Christopher worked. Ananda had been on the island a while, long enough to get someone pregnant and through an abortion, practice lots of martial arts with a long sword, and achieve a deep, tawny glow. After we were introduced, he sat down at the tree-stump-slice table and looked at me with the clearest, bluest, most all-seeing eyes. The tears came instantly.
Though we had just met, he reached out and squeezed my hand and nodded, smiling at me with a dizzying, cosmic kind of love while I wept. For what, I still don’t know—love lost, love never found, deprivation, lust, loneliness, disconnection, hope? When we all got up to leave, Ananda hugged me with his whole body, lifting me off the ground. I knew then that I wanted him. Bad.
But I was celibate. And my no-sex plan had already firmed into a promise.
“No more, not right now,” it said.
And even more annoying, it turned out Ananda was celibate too, also for spiritual, soul-enhancing reasons. Argh.
This didn’t stop us, though, from having a spirit-blowing—though utterly nonsexual, with nary a kiss—romance. He even shared my roomy garage for a while. I read him my goddessy poetry, he taught me Qigong. We sparred, then wrestled. A lot. In our typical Maui garb (me, bikini and sarong; him, baggy martial-arts pants, no shirt). But we only ever touched each other on the most neutral body parts.
“You’re one of the biggest loves of my life,” he told me one night on my futon, the green mountains out behind us in the dark. Soon he left the island for a while and when he returned, it wasn’t the same.
My distance maintained, I moved into a cottage where giant avocados thudded on the roof.
Celibacy is a lot like nothingness. When Westerners initially hear about nothingness, they think it means a literal and total absence, and it’s hard to wrap the brain around a philosophy that seems based on an empty shopping cart or a room without furniture. But my understanding now is that it’s a rich place of unseeable somethingness, filled with the gentlest kind of invisible softness. That’s where I go when I meditate, when I fall past my body in yoga, when I glide into true prayer. For the most part, I wasn’t alone in my celibacy; it wasn’t an empty room. It was a rich space in which to unfurl my many broken hearts—they break in layers, I think, a palimpsest of loss. It was a space in which I could start to see my true self, instead of looking to hot, semi-sensitive men to hold up the mirror.
I was beginning to feel, in the words of James Redfield in The Celestine Prophecy, like an “O.” The book explains how most people are “C”s: When they’re not in relationships, they face god, getting their nourishment from spirit. When they meet someone they dig, they try to get their needs met by sucking energy from the other person instead. The ideal, writes Redfield, is to be an “O” and to meet another “O” so as to experience spirit individually and together.
I was starting to feel my “C” close when Christopher asked if I, maybe, could possibly be interested in a relationship with him—the most ambivalent invitation I have ever almost received.
I sort of said yes; he was my best friend. I’m sure it was no coincidence that I broke my fast with someone who ultimately left me (another heart layer, crack) for celibacy.
Though we were together for more than a year, even our most sexual moments and all of our attempts at loving each other like lovers felt essentially chaste. Christopher is now a Franciscan brother, having renounced sex and money and possessions; he wears a robe and bowl cut and isn’t allowed to speak to single women, including me. I railed against his choice, but, ironically, I spent the next four years doing what he was doing, only with cuter hair and less brown: more celibacy.
I moved back to my hometown of New York City. Eventually I turned 30.
It was almost as though I had to protect myself from the usual twentysomething relationships, sexual disasters, and adventures. Like there was a part of me that couldn’t have withstood the pain of that. It was also fun party conversation: “I haven’t had sex in four years.” “No way!”
Now, I’m in a relationship approaching the two-year mark. I’ve been ill for several months, though, and the sex has necessarily dropped away. I don’t miss it as much as I think I should. My now-ex Christopher once quoted someone who told him, “Don’t have sex with anyone unless you would want to be them.” This was because, he explained, of the deep psychic energy exchange that happens during sex.
Maybe that’s why my default setting seems to be celibacy, even though I’ve had fantastic, copious sex. Maybe I’m protective of my deepest layer, the layer that comes undone in true, soul-baring, embarrassingly intimate lovemaking. Sometimes I think maybe I’m better somehow, like a camel who can go ages without water, and that means I’m disciplined in a way that others—and even myself in most areas of my life—are not.
Or perhaps I am, in spirit, like the ever-celibate Joan of Arc. Then again, I adore my partner and I love the nourishment and pleasure that committed company—and monogamous, loving sex—provides. Maybe it’s time to break the spell of the hypnotic guy at the ashram who told me I was meant to be chaste, forever.
I recently surfaced an article from my saucy sex-columnist days. It started with a letter from a man who wondered whether, after four years of spiritual celibacy, he should give in or hold on.
My published advice, brimming with youthful certainty, to him was: “We are all sexy little earthbound creatures made of skin and spirit and we must dig it all because, baby, we are it all. As for your dilemma—darling, your heart knows what’s up. This could be a time of turbo-celibacy or it could be time to peruse all immediate associates for a vibe that vibrates.
But really, no choice has any sort of essential betterness except the one that gets all yer internal voices nodding in unbridled unison.”