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Who Invited Onan? The Continental Conundrum of Brahmacharya November 3, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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While preparing his monologue for a roast of Mr. Burns, Homer Simpson writes, “Now I’m not saying Mr. Burns is incontinent…” To which Bart laughs and responds, “Incontinent. Too rich!” Ever sensible, Lisa comments from the peanut gallery, “Does either of you know what ‘incontinent’ means?” And Homer retorts, “Lisa, don’t spoil our fun.”

Most of us don’t know what ‘incontinent’ means. I know I don’t. I’m not sure where the line lies — for any activity — between continent and incontinent. For example, as disgusting as they are to the touch, smell, and taste, I love Moon Pies (chocolate- and vanilla-flavored only; no banana, please). Moon pies being as objectionable as they are, though, should a one-time indulgence be considered incontinent? Four times out of five, I’ll feel sick enough to regret having eaten the Moon Pie, so eighty percent of the time, my body tells me that, indeed, 1 Moon Pie represents incontinence. But that still implies that it’s not incontinent twenty percent of the time. Might there be a sliding scale, then, that governs the concept of continence depending on a given time and place — especially since, as far as Moon Pies are concerned, I won’t know if it’s an “eighty” or a “twenty” until after the act of potential incontinence has been perpetrated?

Patanjali’s fourth yama is brahmacharya, which is roughly interpreted as sexual continence. According to the Yoga Sutras, one who practices brahmacharya finds vitality and vigor (“By one established in continence, vigor is gained.”)

As a yama, brahmacharya isn’t parallel to the other four. It’s the only one that’s not self-evident; that is, to understand and to practice brahmacharya, one first needs to grasp the intellectual concept of “continence.” Not harming, not lying, and not stealing are simple notions to understand and behaviors to prosecute; you either engage in them or you don’t. Greedlessness, though a bit more subjective, is also a fairly straightforward idea; if you’re not using everything you have, then you have more than you need.

But continence? This one requires a very human touch, because determining when you’ve behaved incontinently is an intellectual construct. It demands that we stand in judgment, evaluating evidence in order to determine the difference between much and too much. And that adverb “too” is a tricky one. One man’s violence is every man’s violence, but incontinence varies from being to being. And sexual incontinence is even more confusing.

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, men are advised to conserve their semen: “A man’s semen can be controlled by the mind and control of semen is lifegiving. Therefore, his semen and mind should be controlled and conserved.” Now, in the twenty-first century, it seems quite archaic and ignorant to conflate semen with sexual energy, something along the lines of advising a man to consume milk after sex in order to “replace what he’s lost.” A man produces 1,500 spermatozoa per second. When a man ejaculates, he releases 280 million sperm, give or take — about two days’ work for the gamete manufacturers in the testes. So for most men, semen and sperm are not exactly in short supply, and one is never in danger of squandering his “seed” in the Biblical, Onan sense of the word.

While I understand the danger of interpreting yogic texts literally — indeed, Sri Swami Satchidananda advises against just that in his translation of the Yoga Sutras — the HYP’s almost mathematical connection between one’s sperm count and one’s vitality begs for scientific exegesis. It’s bizarre to use something as grossly physical as one’s semen reserves as an “index” for something so esoterically spiritual like vitality. It’s like divining one’s morality by measuring the length of his hair. Rarely is yogic philosophy so unilaterally directed towards physiology, and therefore so open to scientific skepticism. Prana, for example, is far removed from the realm of scientific inquiry; “life force” can’t be measured — unit by unit, cell by cell — in a lab. I’d accept an explanation that connected sexual energy to something intangible like prana, but that’s not the one I’m given in shastra.

So how do I practice brahmacharya? In my day-to-day life, I try to fold brahmacharya into my practice of ahimsa. In my conception of the yamas, sexual abuse and sexual assault fall under the jurisdiction of ahimsa, the salient feature of a sex crime being the sex crime itself, not its correlative ejaculation. And adultery can be seen (to the more chauvinistic among us) as an asteya issue or again, (to the more equality-oriented) a question of ahimsa.

Unlike the other yamas, I approach brahmacharya from a positive standpoint. In my practice of asteya, I choose not to steal. But for brahmacharya, since I know my sexual energy cannot be “squandered,” I strive to employ it constructively. Brahmacharya, then, encourages mindfulness, because while one can practically sleepwalk through not harming, cheating, stealing, or coveting, one must be attentive when determining where to best place his sexual energy.

Sexual energy represents our creative impulse, but that “creativity” isn’t just the capacity to reproduce. Instead, brahmacharya asks that we be creative in our application of that energy, that we don’t just “hold it in,” but rather find a constructive, beneficial outlet for it. Indeed, we can use brahmacharya not to construct things anew, but to reconstruct our actions for the better. Brahmacharya brings out our internal editor; listen to her and spread your love.

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