Let’s dive into a discussion on sexuality as a way to express closeness or intimacy with someone we love and care about. Sexuality can be a difficult topic to discuss openly. While this form of intimacy can be beautiful and generative, it can also be violent and traumatic when it is not consensual. We acknowledge that as spiritual beings, it is a joy to engage with our sexuality and we celebrate this embodied form of sensual pleasure. We explore sexual energy as one of many forms of energy and sexual intimacy as one of many forms of intimacy. How do we each understand sexuality, sexual desire, and intimacy in ourselves? Does power play a role? 


Kaira Jewel Lingo: When I went to live in Plum Village, it was liberating to live in this other framework that existed outside the dominant narrative that the only way to be happy is to have a romantic partner. It was a lot simpler as a celibate monastic. It takes so much energy to engage with the sexual part of your life, and it was a real relief for me to focus on other things instead. Things became quieter and easier inside in many ways. 

It’s like when there’s a lot of background noise and then the noise quiets down. There was this sense of spaciousness that came from being celibate and not seeing myself through the lens of how attractive I was to men, as a sexual, commodified object. Shaving my head and wearing loose robes that hid all of my curves gave a measure of freedom from having to adhere to conventional standards of beauty. (And as our society becomes more and more aware and moves beyond the gender binary, it is also clear that androgynous shapes, like female shaved heads, are also considered beautiful and sexually attractive.) In the monastery, everyone wore brown, a plain unstimulating color that was also the color of the earth, the color of humility. It was calming and regulating for people to be around us, and the color brown communicated this kind of trust and simplicity. There was this sort of exhale of relief for many of us nuns, like, “Oh, I don’t have to look a particular way for others.” It was also an aspect of a feminist path to completely bypass the beauty industry, to not have to subscribe to any of it. 

As a nun, I experienced freedom around not needing to respond or be subject to the male gaze in the way I had been socialized. And I did experience that I had a lot more energy available because I was celibate. I had plenty of energy to do many different things that were very fulfilling. I felt good about that. I felt I had a lot of life force. It wasn’t that as monastics we didn’t have any romantic feelings or have any sexual desire. Those feelings would still arise, and we would practice caring for those feelings mindfully and compassionately without acting on them as best we could. But, in general, I was meeting my need for intimacy in other fulfilling ways, with deep spiritual friendships and feeling meaningfully engaged in the world. 

In monastic life, we experienced powerful sensuality without sexuality, through activities like eating delicious food that we lovingly, creatively, and beautifully prepared, singing and creating music together, delighting in the beauty of the natural world, expressing our creativity, choreographing dances and writing plays. Even walking meditation was a sensual affair as we practiced kissing the earth with our feet. Celibacy is not dry and dull! It’s juicy and joyful. Because we were practicing living deeply in the present, there was constant stimulation and a celebration of the senses. We took deep enjoyment in life, savoring the full moon and taking time to really take it in, putting on a Daffodil Festival every spring, when the hills were covered with daffodils—living in harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. As novices, sometimes we would go out and lie down on the smooth road by the monastery on a summer night, enjoying the surface still warm from the sun, completely in awe of the brilliance of the stars in the countryside, far from the light pollution of the city. I definitely felt more alive as a nun than before I was ordained. I was inhabiting all of my senses with much more awareness than before. 

“How are sexuality, celibacy, and intimacy held in our practice?”

That said, I also have found, since leaving monastic life, there is so much beauty and goodness in being married, in being in a mutually loving partnership that includes physical intimacy. There are certain parts of you that are not engaged when you live as a monastic, when you are not intimate in that particular way with another. Being in a physical, incarnate relationship has been very important for me in integrating and fulfilling certain parts of who I am, including on the spiritual path. Sexuality is an important part of the spiritual path. It’s not separate from it. 

This whole journey of leaving monastic life, individuating on many levels to learn how to really live on my own for the first time when I reentered lay life, and now being married, has been a path of integration. It is bringing the spiritual discipline that I learned in a monastic context into this new context of a loving relationship that offers new gifts and spiritual formation. Coming back to the body is essential. I am interested in how to stay embodied and honor this body in this new expression as a householder. Sometimes I ask myself the question: What does my body want? And I practice to respond to my world from that place. 


Valerie Brown: I love the question: how are sexuality, celibacy, and intimacy held in our practice? For me, one of the best descriptions of intimate relationships comes from adrienne maree brown; she says that intimacy is showing your vulnerabilities, showing your needs. I really love this idea of being exposed and the courageous strength and risk it takes to do that. When I think about this question, intimacy also means being porous enough to allow yourself to be seen and received and to see and receive others. 

For some time now, I’ve been taking as a practice reading the mindfulness training on True Love for lay members of the Order of Interbeing.* There’s one part that says, “sexual desire is not love and that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate feelings of loneliness.” Then, I started to think, “Well, sometimes it’s not just loneliness. Sometimes people are feeling many other things that motivate them toward sexual desire. At times people may move in the direction of sexual desire with the hope that it will address feelings of self-esteem and self-worth, boredom, inadequacy, or help them feel more alive or connected. 

“Sexuality is an important part of the spiritual path. It’s not separate from it.”

In 2017 in the United States, the Surgeon General declared a loneliness epidemic, which was made worse by the pandemic, physical distancing, and social isolation. Loneliness could be one of many different things that’s happening for a person. I participated in a Faith and Trust Institute training called “Healthy Boundaries for Clergy, Spiritual Teachers, and Lay Leaders.” The issue of how to handle our sexual desire is important and requires our discernment. However, within a community, sometimes this topic of sexual desire, sexual intimacy, celibacy, and sexuality feels like a third rail, untouchable, off limits, or outside the dharma. 

How does one hold sexuality, power, and sexual desire responsibly and allow for vulnerability to be present? I realize that my vulnerability is really a power and I have the power to be soft, the power to be open, the power to say, “Yes, I’m celibate and sensual, and this is complicated.” That’s a powerful thing to say. The power I am talking about is the power to soften around some of these tender issues without grasping. 


Valerie Brown: I think in many traditions and in the Plum Village tradition, we can have an aversion to our own sexual beingness. I’ve seen this come up many times. Of course, to embrace our sexuality is part of embracing who we are. I don’t mean that a person has to engage in sex to be a sexual being. To be a sexual being, one can recognize “I have this body,” the fullness of this body, and cherish that, celebrate that. As Black people, we get messages all the time that this Black body is not to be cherished. So, to me, intimacy and sexual intimacy is to cherish the wholeness of the body that I have. It is to cherish sexual relations based on true love and understanding. 

I recall a situation a number of years ago that really stuck with me. I was at one of the Plum Village monasteries and we were offering a practice of deep relaxation. Typically, we do this by inviting people to settle in their bodies, either lying down on the floor or sitting in a chair, feeling comfortable and then progressively relaxing parts of their body. We either begin with the top of the head or with the bottom of the feet and work our way up or work our way down in a complete body scan exercise. But interestingly, the person offering this practice completely skipped over the reproductive and sexual organs of the body. And I thought, wait a minute, what is this? After we came out of the deep relaxation, one brave man said that he was upset that we had entirely skipped over a significant part of his body, and that it felt as though we had ignored an important part of who he is. That moment stayed with me and I never forgot that. (Later, I learned that the person offering the meditation did give an explanation; they sought to avoid retriggering sexual trauma in a retreat setting by not mentioning them, which the questioner did seem to understand and appreciate.) 

When I offer deep relaxation to a group, I always include this area of the body. I name the reproductive parts specifically, using the language of celebrating the organs of creativity and life. And I think this is freeing. Ultimately, our practice is about liberation, and this is part of that liberation. 


Mindfulness Practice: Taking Care of Ourselves, Now and in the Past

Marisela B. Gomez, MD: This meditation will take good care of our younger selves. Please find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Take several deep breaths in and out. Visualize or bring into mind your awareness of the breath energy coming in from the crown of the head and moving through the entire body: the eyelids, the armpits, the finger nails, the tailbone, the backs of the knees, the little toes, every part. Notice all the sensations as the breath slowly moves through the body; notice feeling tones, odor, colors. Let the breath energy linger in places where it feels open and soft. Let the breath energy sit near places that might be tight, or painful. And notice if different sensations, odors, or colors are there. No pushing, no pulling, simply being near, listening, like a good friend. You might even say to the breath as it sits near a painful place, “Thank you, friend.” 

Now visualize or bring into mind your five-year-old, ten-year-old, or fourteen-year-old self sitting or lying near you. Invite them to breathe in and out slowly like your current-day self just did and show them how to move the breath through the body, listening to areas that might be afraid and lingering with areas that might feel soft and safe. After asking them permission, you might even extend your hand to clasp the hand of your younger self, letting them feel safe and cared for. You can let them know they are protected, they are beautiful, they have nothing to feel ashamed of or guilty about. They are a beautiful being. 

After sitting together like this for about as long as it feels right, ask your younger self if you can offer them a hug. If this is okay, hold them close and whisper in their ear that you are always there for them, no matter what time of the day or night it is. Let them know that you will sit together like this again if they feel comfortable. 

Slowly open your eyes. 

healing our way home
Photo courtesy Parallax Press

From Healing Our Way Home: Black Buddhist Teachings on Ancestors, Joy, and Liberation, by Kaira Jewel Lingo, Valerie Brown, and Marisela B. Gomez, MD. Republished with permission from Parallax Press 2024.

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