In the following intimate account, a contemporary celibate describes her decision to renounce sexuality
for a period of several years and her discovery of a liberating new perspective on the potential for real
intimacy between men and women.
Two years ago I became celibate. Finally the time had come. It was something I had very much wished for and which I entered into with great passion. It was the end of the world—the end of my history and identity as an attractive woman. There was only one thing now: freedom
. Amazingly beautiful, enormous infinity. It was intoxicating. No romance, no tempestuous or tender relationship, not the warm security in the arms of a man . . . nothing
was comparable to the experience of this step. It was exactly what I had dreaded and wished for most in my life: I was alone. I shaved my head and committed myself to a life without sexual activity. Renunciation. No man would turn his head after me. The illusion that there would be a future knight in shining armor was also gone. The journey I had begun was leading into unknown territory, and I wasn't going to come back. I didn't exist anymore in the world of the beautiful, the rich and the famous. My ticket to that world had vanished with my hair. The decision for celibacy had come after thinking and contemplating for a long time. It was a conscious choice.
Recently, looking out the window at two nuns in black habits, an unsuspecting colleague said, "Look, nuns! That's a thing of the past." He didn't notice anything; in a way, my celibacy is inconspicuous, even though regularly with the full and new moon my hair is shaved and any reemerging signs of identity or something like "good looks" disappear. It happens quietly, serenely, and increasingly as a matter of course. At work I wear a hat, something covering my head. Of course that makes people curious, but after their initial shock they hardly notice and don't seem that interested. Sometimes there's an ironic grin; often people just shake their heads or don't know what to say at all. Occasionally there is a timid question about the reasons. Sometimes there's a conversation, mostly with women who see parallels in themselves, who feel attracted and repulsed at the same time. Is it possible that one of us could withdraw so absolutely from the value system for women in our society? Withdraw in a way that is unmistakable and that demands great conviction on a personal level? As a woman, to be bald in our society is a big challenge. After all, this world is made of ideas about sexual power—or is it?
"Don't you have any physical desire? I could never do without it!" That's the comment I'm offered most often. It seems difficult for modern men and women to imagine a life without sexual activity. Our self-confidence depends on how attractive we feel, how much affirmation we get for that, and how often and intensely we are able to satisfy our sexual desire. Sexuality is a modern God. Even today, the notion that we can find true fulfillment in romantic and sexual relationships is still the most powerful temptation and the biggest illusion.
My life was also driven and marked by this longing to find profound unity, overwhelming trust and absolute surrender in romantic and sexual adventures. And no matter how much, as a teenager, I doubted deep down that this was possible, I still couldn't wait to be an adult, to have a boyfriend, to be someone, to feel life bubbling inside with the electricity of romantic and sexual feelings.
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca
are timeless and dramatic icons of a promise of eternal, ecstatic bliss that will never be fulfilled. Their faces wet with rain in the good-bye scene, she doesn't know that he's already decided to sacrifice their love for a bigger purpose. She's in love, weightless rapture. That's all she seems to know or wants to know. Finally, the lovers have found each other, and the world is in balance, despite all the chaos she's experiencing. She will leave Victor Laszlo and go into an uncertain but intoxicating future together with Rick. When I saw this scene for the first time, I could hardly bear the pain she suffers when Rick tells her that she will get on the plane with Victor and he'll stay back. The two men understand each other. The French policeman understands. All three men seem untouched by the enormous emotional blow which is mirrored in Ingrid Bergman's eyes so hauntingly. Here's looking at you, kid
. The world of a woman is the love of a man. Without him, she is nothing, no matter how liberated we believe ourselves to be today. Why else would we work so hard to improve our attractiveness? The power and security that come from that, which bring us the love of a man, are enormously important to us. We suffer deep agony and doubt should we be deprived of them or if they are questioned. Men and women seem to have agreed on a code that makes them the prisoners and the guards of the prison at the same time. Men leave. Baby, please don't go!
After the third big love affair of my life failed, I started to pay attention. Wilhelm Reich says that human beings mate according to a biological, hormonal program. For a period of four years, certain hormones are produced that guarantee sexual attraction between a man and woman. After that, it stops. It's about the period of time necessary to raise children to a less vulnerable age. Procreation must be guaranteed, then one moves on. That was my experience as well. After about four years I grew disinterested in my sexual partner. Often, at that point, I fell in love with someone else. Sometimes I was just bored. Usually I was so angry about the personal tics of my former knight that separating was the most reasonable thing to do. Everybody could see that; I got all the support. The men usually felt the same.
For a while, when I was a student, I followed my insight that true love was an illusion and had several exclusively sexual relationships. Sexual liberation had passed its pinnacle and begun its destructive phase. The time of the courageous experiments of the communes was over. More and more I could feel a cynical and aggressive tone. It seemed that nobody really wanted to give themselves anymore. "We are together, but we are not committing to anything." Too big was the fear that once again we would be left standing in the rain, wet and cold, not understanding why the promise of eternal, all-healing love—which would answer all questions, which would make my life
okay—had not been fulfilled. No more Ingrid Bergman, no more Casablanca
I took my rage about my disillusionment to women's rights groups. There we were, unified in knowing who the real enemy was: men, patriarchy. Women had the raw end of the deal in every area of life. Professionally we were underprivileged, where love was concerned we were the fools, and if there were kids they remained our responsibility in any case. Our meetings were full of anger and helplessness; we felt we were victims of a great injustice. There was no forgiving. Now, fifteen years later, this group no longer exists and most of the women are in "committed" relationships with a man or a woman. Mostly with men. What happened to the revolution? What happened to our insights? One of my friends back then said, "We don't despair when the war in Vietnam doesn't stop or the nuclear plant is built after all; we despair when our relationships don't work out." Love relationships still seem to be the most important thing in our lives, despite mind expansion, despite all the hard-won progress in women's rights and despite all of our realizations from various types of meditation.
The sexual side of human experience is very confusing. Lust or sexual desire can flood our perception in an instant and cause us to act in a way we might regret only a short time later. My own life is full of examples of the destructive consequences such un-thought-out behavior can have. I thought about it for a long time before I decided to be celibate. The decision came after I realized that I didn't trust the man I desired most. Because of this, a sexual relationship was out of the question. I didn't want to repeat my past and be involved in an endless struggle for power.
That I lacked trust shocked me very much. But it opened up an investigation for me in which, for the first time, I could meet the fundamental questions of my life with real interest: What is love? What is sexual attraction? Why am I afraid to be alone, alone and independent? Who am I really if I renounce my own sexual attractiveness, renounce the sexual arena of life in general? What does it really mean to go beyond these powerful impulses? What does it mean to be responsible? Again and again I had compromised for sexual attraction, for romantic ideas that had promised me paradise on earth. Life is so huge, so incomprehensible in its mystery—but I couldn't disentangle myself from my worries about my love and sex life. A man was always at the center of my universe. Right at my side. There we were, and everything above, below, to the right or left of us was barely visible. There was hardly anything else I recognized. I had always chosen the security of the conventional. At the same time, there was a longing in me that could never be fulfilled by this set-up.
When I considered becoming celibate, what most attracted me were the intimations of a rare peace. No temptation, no matter how strong, would be able to pull me away from my intention to give everything for freedom. No bargaining, no secrets, no drama. Only clarity of intention. In all my relationships, I had always wished that I would have the courage to be alone. Now I was, and I was free to question all my ideas, to examine all of my experience and to find out if it is possible to see it in a very different way, a way that would allow for a true understanding of human life.
Renouncing sexual desire has given me a perspective on sexual feelings that reveals how impersonal, mechanical and meaningless they are. Sexuality is something that seems to have its own rhythm. It's up to us to respond to it or not. Not reacting means that nothing happens; no karma is created, no consequences. Even though a roaring hurricane of sexual feelings nearly swallowed me whole a minute ago, I am still free. Feelings that in the past I was convinced would tear me apart appear and disappear. Nothing happens. Sexual feelings—contrary to what I hoped and believed earlier in my life—have nothing to do with freedom. As ecstatic as they may be and as far as they may have carried me beyond the mind, in the long run they don't last, and they don't reveal true liberation. They are part of human experience—the part that relentlessly, and with all its tricks and sweet temptations, is always demanding procreation. And renouncing that part has strengthened my conviction that it is possible to be free in this life. This means, more and more, a real and living perspective beyond thought, beyond feeling and beyond time. The courage to be an expression of this perspective I have to find alone. In this courage to be alone there lies the possibility of profound trust in life itself.
My practice of celibacy is planned to last for three years. Initially this seemed like an eternity, but today I wouldn't want a different life. There's nothing in me rushing to end the practice. The peace in me grows; the prospect of a sexual relationship becomes less and less attractive. The deep desire to put my head on a man's shoulder and feel safe is vanishing, and with it, my self-imposed dependency on the illusion that there is any safety in this life. Celibacy is a precious opportunity for me to discover and investigate true independence, undistracted and with great devotion. The more I let go of my romantic helplessness and angry blaming, the more I see men as the human beings they are. They are no longer the arch-enemy a woman has to conquer in order to survive. It is possible to trust them. It is possible, first, to be a human being among human beings.
I can't help but imagine a new Casablanca
. . . . Bogey is standing there in the rain, his face serious and wet. He seems a little surprised but very relieved when Ingrid steps on the plane without blinking an eye, without shedding a tear, and calls out to him, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!"
Carin Jungmann is a student of Andrew Cohen and lives in his spiritual community in Cologne, Germany.