Some years ago, I read in Gita Mehta’s book, Karma Cola, the story of a Hollywood producer who — finding himself at mid life profoundly disturbed by his strong sexual lusts — travels to India in search of a guru who will help him overcome his desires.
After asking around, he’s directed to a holy man who lives along the Ganges. The Producer finds the holy man and demands that he reveal to him the secret of conquering one’s sexual desires.
To answer the Producer, the holy man takes off his loin cloth and begins masturbating — all the while sensibly lecturing the Producer on how he should not deny the needs of his body, but instead accept them, calmly deal with them, and be done with it.
The story of the Producer — along with Mehta’s entire book of true stories — is very much worth reading. Especially since I have reproduced here in retelling the Producer’s story none of Mehta’s wonderful wit, and I fear, only the most minor of her many insights.
Yet, that insight, however much in this case minor, is entirely remarkable. Jiddu Krishnamurti spoke a bit more abstractly about the same sort of thing when he said:
Throughout the world, so-called holy men have maintained that to look at a woman is something totally wrong: they say you cannot come near to God if you indulge in sex, therefore they push it aside although they are eaten up with it. But by denying sexuality they put out their eyes and cut out their tongues for they deny the whole beauty of the earth. They have starved their hearts and minds; they are dehydrated human beings; they have banished beauty because beauty is associated with woman.
Both Gita Mehta and Jiddu Krishnamurti take such a sensible approach to something so obvious that you might wonder who on earth could possibly dispute what they — and at least a few other people — have said about the proper relation of sex to spirituality.
But then, of course, you would be ignoring a rich and ancient tradition. A tradition that is world wide, and one which seems to largely consist in otherwise often sensible folks becoming profound idiots when dealing with matters sexual. I myself had the pleasure of running smack into that tradition just yesterday. That is, I came across a thread on an internet message board that asked the question, “Is masturbation wrong?” By the time I found the thread, it had gone on for about 150 posts.
It seemed to me that question was not one to naturally stir up so much conversation. Certainly not 150 posts worth. So, I took a closer look, and discovered the thread had gone so many posts largely due to religion. More precisely, two or three people were vigorously objecting to masturbation on mainly religious grounds. For example:
The point of [Saint] Paul’s words is to not let sex become your one focus. You know I hear people say ‘we are sexual beings’ as if sex is our main attribute but the reality is that sex is a very small part of who we are. If some choose to make their whole life about sex, then they can do that, but they will eventually come to realize that there is more important things in life then sex and masturbation.
Now, I would agree there are more important things in life than sex and masturbation. For instance: On most days, love trumps both. Yet, I don’t understand the person’s insistence that masturbation is morally wrong.
Near as I can figure it out, this is her reasoning: If you masturbate, then masturbation will come to mean more to you than anything else. It will take over your life; it will “become your one focus”. That, however, is a bad thing because “the reality is that sex is a very small part of who we are”.
There are so many things wrong with her reasoning, that it might be hard to believe she crammed them all into such a short paragraph. In the first place, the overwhelming majority of us masturbate, yet, very few of us become addicted to it. That is, it is exceptional for masturbation to take over someone’s life, to “become your one focus”. Hence, it is not necessarily true that if you masturbate, masturbation will come to mean more to you than anything else.
In the second place, sex is not “a very small part of who we are”, except in the very same sense that eating might be said by some people to be a very small part of who we are. We are just as much sexual beings as, for instance, we are social beings. That is rather obvious about us. I think it would be quite difficult to become well read in psychology, biology, evolution, history, or anyone of several other sciences or disciplines without noticing that sex plays a huge role in our lives. Sex is by no means everything in life, but most of the time it pretty much is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. There’s a profound sense in which you can psychologically deny sex, but you still cannot ignore it.
It’s true too much can be made of sex. It can indeed become for some people their “one focus” — especially during adolescence. But it seems to me that is most likely to happen to those unfortunate people who repress their desires to the point they are starving for sex. That is, I think the best way to become obsessed with food is to go without it for 20 or 30 days. And likewise, the best way to become obsessed with sex is to go without any form of it for a fair amount of time. At least, that’s my hunch.
One of the folks participating in conversation yesterday cited an interesting study:
After analyzing data on the self-reported levels of sexual activity and happiness of 16,000 people, Dartmouth College economist David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England report that sex “enters so strongly (and) positively in happiness equations” that they estimate increasing intercourse from once a month to once a week is equivalent to the amount of happiness generated by getting an additional $50,000 in income for the average American.
“The evidence we see is that money brings some amounts of happiness, but not as much as what economists might have thought,” says Blanchflower. “We had to look to psychologists and realize that other things really matter.”
Of course, intercourse is not quite the same thing as masturbation, but it seems possible that, if quadrupling the frequency of intercourse generates about the same amount of happiness as an additional $50,000 would generate, then masturbation might actually generate a bit of happiness too.
I think a very strong case can be made for the notion that masturbation is not harmful in any ordinary way, and that it even is most likely to be beneficial. But is there some sense in which masturbation is spiritually harmful? So far as I can see, the woman on the message board failed to make a case for masturbation causing any spiritual harm. But what do you think? Could such a case be made?