The term “brahmacharya” is found in both the Sanskrit and Pali languages of ancient India. It is listed amongst Patanjali’s five yamas and the Buddha’s panchasila, both of which address the ethical or behavioural aspects of the sphere of spiritual practice. Brahmacharya is commonly interpreted as pertaining to control or restraint in the exchange of sexual energy. The specific details of this prescription of control or restraint vary from tradition to tradition and are generally biased towards the prevailing standards of the culture within which the tradition is embedded.
Human conceptualization and interpretation always occurs through a cultural filter. To claim otherwise would indicate a deep misunderstanding of the nature of the human mind. My interpretations of scriptural concepts tend to be personalized. I do not perceive scriptures as unquestionable ancient truths which are carved in stone, but as malleable and fluid concepts which can be reinterpreted and moulded to fit into novel and emergent contexts. I have my own way of perceiving reality and my place therein, which isn’t fully consistent with any of the worldviews expounded in the scriptures of the major religions, cultures and spiritual systems of the world. I do not attempt to mould my personal behavior and inner logic in a way that makes it consistent with someone else’s prescribed version of truth. Instead, I prefer to actively reinterpret some of the common concepts from certain spiritual and cultural traditions in a way that consolidates my own subjective and inwardly felt understanding. In so doing, I maintain a sense of wholeness within myself and my relationship with the world.
I use the term “authenticity” to describe the aforementioned process of giving precedence to one’s innate internal logic and comprehension, especially if one allows this internally generated truth to guide one’s actions and behaviour in one’s relationships with the rest of the world. Authenticity often flies in the face of socially and culturally accepted norms, since these cultural norms represent an external consensus rather than genuine internal truth. Attempting to adopt a worldview, a behavioural code or a way of being that is inconsistent with one’s own personal nature is to do a great violence unto oneself, and to create a deep internal conflict and rift which serves only to fragment oneself. I classify attempts to shape one’s behavior and worldview in a way that is inconsistent with one’s phenomenological experiences to be “inauthentic.” Unfortunately, most people in the world engage in this unhealthy form of practice for the sake of cultural and religious conformity and belonging. I feel that an authentic seeker of truth should avoid doing this, regardless of the social hardships which may result from expressed and engaged authenticity.
Brahmacharya is one of the concepts that I have taken liberty to actively reinterpret. Normally, brahmacharya is restricted to a sense of boundary and restriction in the sphere of sexual exchange between human beings. I prefer to think of brahmacharya as broadly applying to a greater sense of responsibility and felt awareness in the entirety of the field of our relationships with “others” – whether those others are human or not. Modern (i.e. post-neolithic) religion and spirituality is hyper-focused on human beings, and in particular on human sexual energy. This is not surprising, as modern religion arose primarily as a tool to control and coordinate large groups of human beings by uniting them under a common worldview, purpose and code of moral conduct. One of the most effective ways to control a person is to control their sexual energy.
When the concept of brahmacharya is expanded to bring greater awareness and feeling – and hence responsibility – to the entire sphere of our interactions with others, it allows profound insight about human nature to emerge. When brahmacharya is reduced to forced control in the sphere of exchange of sexual energy, it becomes shallow and misleading, and can constrain one’s understanding of human nature to the sphere of social control.
“Born out of Nature” by Edward Foster
Human organisms are in a continuous process of exchange with our environment. We are engaged in “intercourse” with our environment 24 hours a day, for as long as we remain alive. Our environment includes everything that could be defined as “other” than us. This includes other human beings, other animals, other forms of biotic life, and all of the “non-living” aspects of the world which we are a part of – the rocks, the wind, the water, etc. In other words, one’s environment is everything that one is not.
The informational exchange that takes place between a living organism and its environment is both physical and energetic. This exchange flows both ways – we are simultaneously the giver and the receiver of energy – and this reciprocal flow within the relationship between the self and its environment doesn’t pause for a moment for as long as we are alive. When one abides in an embodied state, this fact is clearly felt at the experiential level. For pre-agricultural humans with an animist worldview and a deeply felt communion with the rest of the living Earth, this fact would have been a given and would not have required explanation. In modern times, the disembodied, abstract and objectified human-centric realm that we have created, and that most of us dwell in, makes it easy to lose sight of our perpetual communion with our environment.
There is a discernible distinction between oneself and one’s environment. Yet, because of the perpetual continuity of the reciprocal flow of information and substance between the self and the environment, it is truly impossible to define oneself outside of the context of one’s environment. On one hand, we are autonomous autopoietic units and we are recognizably distinct from our environment. At the same time, we ARE our environment. To truly understand human nature, it is important to be able to hold this dialectical perspective of seemingly opposite points of view.
In his excellent book “The Biology of Wonder”, Andreas Weber points out that we do not “process” the elements of our environment which we consume in the way that a machine, such as an engine does. An engine burns carbon based fuels in order to extract a form of energy that moves its pistons. The waste product of this combustion is then released into the environment as carbon monoxide. It is important to understand that the actual structure of the engine does not change through this process. The engine is not in communion or intercourse with its environment – it is using the environment to drive its function as an engine. The atoms and molecules which composed the engine at the time that it was built will still be present in the engine 10, 20 or 50 years later. The structure of the engine does not change through its process of using the environment. The engine is built with a specific purpose by a creator, and placed into its environment to complete a particular task.
Modern science and religion have both taken a similar perspective of role of the human being with respect to its environment. However, upon closer examination it becomes clear that the machine analogy does not obtain for the relationship between a living being and its environment. We do not extract energy from our environment to fuel our bodies in the way that a machine does. Nor are we placed into a pre-existing environment to serve a particular purpose. A human being interacts with its environment in a completely different and more intimate way than a machine does.
The human being actually merges with its environment during its interaction or “intercourse” with it. During cellular respiration, the cell does not “burn” carbon-based sugar to move or fuel its parts in the way that an engine does. The cell integrates the molecules of the sugar into its actual physical structure. The food that is consumed by a living being becomes part of the structure of the body, and part of the process of re-creating the being. Similarly, we do not excrete waste products from a combustion reaction type of process in cellular respiration. The cell breaks down parts of its actual structure, and excretes them as carbon dioxide. Actual physical parts of the being become part of the environment around it. If we examine a human body, the atoms and molecules that compose the structure of the human body are constantly changing. Every molecule in the body is replaced over a relatively short period of time. The human continuously recreates itself from its environment, and the environment similarly recreates itself from the human. Although there is a discernible distinction between the two, they are so intimately intertwined that they are part of a unified process and truly inseparable. I think that “intercourse” is a very appropriate way to describe this intimate process of exchange and co-creation, hence my application of the term brahmacharya to this process of reciprocal exchange within relationship.
Another way to understand the reciprocity of the relationship between the human self and its environment is to look at the role and function of an individual cell within a human body. Each cell has a semi-permeable membrane, which serves as a boundary by which it defines itself with reference to the rest of the environment of the human body. This membrane also serves as a gradient through which it is constantly exchanging information and substance with the rest of the human organism in a complex and dynamic interplay. Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana considered the cell to be the fundamental unit of life in their theory of autopoiesis. For them, the cell is the fundamental unit of a “self”. The cell is an autonomous entity which continuously re-creates itself through its relationship of exchange of information and substance with its environment. Yet, the cell does not and cannot exist outside of the context of the whole of its environment. Remove a particular individual cell from a human body, and it will quickly die. The cell is an individual, autonomous “self”, yet it only exists as a self when it is functioning within relationship to the whole that it is a part of. The cell is an individual self of its own, yet it is also the human body.
Human beings have a membrane or boundary by which we define ourselves with respect to our environment. We are also semi-permeable and continuously re-creating ourselves through the exchange of information and substance with our environment. We are autonomous and independent selves, yet we also cannot exist or have meaning as selves outside of the context of our relationship with our environment. We are perpetually in the deepest form of intercourse with our environment and we literally ARE our environment.
“Tree of Life” by Edward Foster
One of the fundamental shortcomings of traditional reductionist science is that it approaches the environment as a static, objectified “thing” which we, as observers, can somehow remove ourselves from and study as if we are not a part of it, an influence upon it, or influenced by it. This same category of mistake is also made by the major modern religions of the world. All major post-neolithic religions view human beings as has having been placed into an objectified environment for some divine spiritual purpose or mission. According to these human-centric religions, the ultimate goal of the spiritual path is to successfully abstract one’s true essence out of the tangle of the surrounding environment. Whether this manifests in attaining heaven (as in Western monotheistic religions), or in piercing the illusory veil and understanding that the environment is self projected and unreal (as in Eastern oneness religions), all modern religions make the same fundamental error that reductionist science does, by interpreting the human being as an autonomous unit, which is somehow separate from, more special than, or fundamentally different with respect to our environment. We could refer to this fundamental error as the “anthropocentric part-whole fallacy”.
We shape and define our environment through our physical and informational exchanges with it. Simultaneously, the environment shapes and defines who and what we are. Rather than thinking of ourselves and our environment as subject and object, real and unreal, creator and created, or otherwise separated things, it would be more appropriate and accurate to think of our environment as a whole of which we humans are a participatory part. We aren’t placed INTO this world. We arise FROM it and WITH it, and are inextricably intertwined in relationship with it.
In systems thinking, the parts and the whole co-create one another in a reciprocal circular relationship which transcends the linear causality of reductionist science and religion. The parts define and generate the whole through their interrelationships with one another, while at the same time the emergence of the whole defines and generates the parts which the whole requires in order to exist and experience itself. In a system, the parts and whole are so tightly interwoven and interdependent, that the true nature of any one particular aspect of the system can only be properly understood by examining it within the context of its network of relationships. These relationships are fundamental to any valid definition of the thing itself. Without its relationships, any given thing cannot exist. So it is also with humans and our environment. Attempting to abstract ourselves, escape from, transcend, or remove ourselves from our environment – physically, conceptually, or spiritually, is to deeply misunderstand the truth of who and what we are.
This systems perspective is currently the most accurate way to view the nature of a human being and its environment – spiritually/religiously and scientifically. A human being – whether we are examining its physical biology, its psychology, its “soul”, or its existential purpose – cannot be accurately understood outside of its manifold relationships with its environment. The human being and its environment co-create and co-define one another and together they make up the greater whole of the entity of the living Earth and its journey through billions of years of organic evolution. To attempt to define or understand anything about a human being outside of the context of its living and breathing network of relationships within the whole of our organic home on this planet is meaningless and represents a fundamental error in understanding reality. Our dynamic and organic relationships to and through our environment are actually the most fundamental aspect of who and what we are and they are what give us existential meaning.
The animist worldviews of our pre-neolithic ancestors (sapiens, as well as our extinct cousins of the homo genus) were likely consistent with the systems perspective of human nature. I would go so far as to suggest that certain aspects of animism are the subjectively “felt” or emotional-phenomenological dimension of the conceptual theories of modern systems sciences. The two – systems sciences and animism – fit together well, and when combined they give a fairly complete understanding (rational-conceptual as well as emotional-phenomenological) of human existence.
“Seeking Paradise” by Edward Foster
The mistake of abstracting and conceptually separating ourselves from our environment likely began with the advent of agriculture some 12 000 years ago or so. The engineering of human-created agricultural ecosystems and the accompanying convention of ownership and property likely initiated a sense of separation between the human world and the rest of the Earth. Thus were born the stratified concepts of “human” and “environment” which prior to 12 000 years ago, probably did not exist. This conceptual rift would have grown wider and wider as modern human civilization and its engineering technologies developed. As we lost our conception of our place as a participatory part in the system of processes of the whole of nature, we began to see ourselves as something special and separate from nature, who had the right to objectify and attempt to control nature for our own purposes and uses. The objectifying worldviews of the major religions and reductionist science evolved out of this trend of modern human thought and perception, and have reinforced and propagated this trend in a multi-millennia long experiment in cognitive bias. After a few millennia of self-reinforcing amplification of this conception of ourselves, we have arrived at the monumental rift of separation and alienation from the rest of the planet Earth that we experience today – and the resulting precipice of climatic and environmental change which may be sufficient to extinguish human life forever.
Modern religion has traditionally done an excellent job of uniting, controlling and organizing large groups of human beings through a common purpose. Reductionist science has revealed incredible knowledge about the inner workings of the parts that compose the whole of nature and life. It has harnessed this knowledge to engineer technologies that even our most recent ancestors would never have dreamed possible. Both of these achievements – to unite massive numbers of people in working towards a common purpose and to harness the forces of nature to create truly miraculous inventions – are a testament to the power and potential of our species. Yet, in spite of (and because of) these achievements, human civilization now finds itself on the brink of real catastrophe. We have proliferated and applied our technologies so wantonly and without foresight that we have permanently altered our environment to the extent that it may well become uninhabitable for our own species within the next few centuries. This reality is now publicly accepted to the extent that very few people deny the predictions about climate change and environmental degradation. Yet, humans go on with business as usual, without even considering the very radical changes in our relationship to our environment that would be necessary to avert this ongoing disaster. From my perspective, this is fundamentally a problem of brahmacharya. We are not engaging appropriately or responsibly in our relationships with everything that is “other” – our environment.
The only way to alter the trajectory that we are currently on is a dramatic shift in worldview. More wonders of science and engineering or greater faith in the post-neolithic religions are not going to help us from damaging or altering the system which we are a part of to the extent that we can no longer be functionally integrated into it. The prevailing modern worldviews are not going to help us, because they fundamentally misunderstand and misperceive the existential meaning and purpose of being human. As long as we sustain our perception of the stratification of the human world and “the environment”, we will remain fundamentally misaligned with reality and it won’t be possible to re-establish a healthy and sustainable network of relationships with all of the other parts within the dance of life that is the organism of Earth.
We need a new worldview which recognizes that humans are real, autonomous entities, yet are also interwoven into the greater whole of “nature” or “Gaia” to the extent that we ARE nature. We are not any more special, privileged or meaningful than the other elements of the whole. The other animals, the trees, the rocks, the rivers, and the wind are all animate, and are all a part of us and who we are. Our dynamic interplay with all the parts creates the web of life, and at the same time we are all created by the web of life.
Animist cultures tend to live with an awareness of the necessity of regulating their interactions with the environment in the context of their relationships within a greater whole. By perceiving their role as a part within the context of a whole, they are mindful of the nature of their interconnections with all of the other parts, and the necessity of keeping all of these functional relationships healthy and viable. Rather than seeing the environment as something that is “other” and something to manipulate, exploit and consume to serve their own selfish interests for unchecked growth and proliferation, they see the environment as something that they participate in and are an inseparable part of. Every aspect of the environment is something to be deeply respected. Every plant, every animal, every rock, every breath of air is something sacred, to be treated with reverence and with as much respect and care as one would treat a part of one’s own body or one’s sexual partner. For me, this is the essence of animism, and this is the essence of brahmacharya.
Re-interpreting brahmacharya from this animist perspective is to work with respect, awareness, and reverence in the way we play the boundary between ourselves and that which is other. Brahmacharya applies not only in how we conduct ourselves sexually with other human beings, but in how we conduct ourselves in EVERY interaction with something that could be classified as “other.” It is to recognize that we are separate and autonomous selves, yet at the same time, we ARE our interactions and relationships with the other parts of the whole. Understanding the self ultimately means understanding how the self plays in relationship to the whole.
One could interpret the highest form of brahmacharya as finding the essence of interconnectedness in sexual union with another human being. But, we can also experience brahmacharya by feeling the essence of interconnectedness which exists in every aspect of our relationship with our environment. Every exchange that we have – every bite of food and every breath of air that we consume, every piece of information that we receive or take from other humans or other animals or from the wind or the trees – is an aspect of brahmacharya. Every impact we make on the world around us – everything we excrete back into the environment, how we walk on the ground, how we exhale, or what forms of information we give back to the environment – are all aspects of brahmacharya. For me, practicing brahmacharya is to take responsibility for each and every interaction and exchange that we have, and to understand that this exchange is happening 24 hours a day. We create the environment that we live in, and the environment creates us. We are inseparable from our environment. It is who and what we are. It is a reflection of ourselves. To understand this, to experience this, and to truly live in a way that honors this reality is to practice brahmacharya properly.
Once we understand this, we can examine every interaction that we engage in with our environment, and ask ourselves whether that interaction is reciprocal, functional, and healthy for the whole, or whether that interaction is consumptive, exploitative, and ultimately damaging to the whole, and therefore alienating and ultimately harmful for ourselves. It can be difficult to face the fact that modern human agricultural, industrial, and technological society has taken the path of exploitation, damage and alienation. As participants in modern human society, it is nearly impossible to avoid treading the path of the legacy that our ancestors have laid down for the past 12 000 years. But, awareness is the first step. Only by becoming more aware of our individual interactions on small scale, moment to moment levels, and guiding our personal spiritualities and worldviews back towards the Earth and our inseparable relationship with it, can we hope to generate an ethical momentum that promotes internal and external consistency and wholeness. Every interaction we have with our environment counts. Every action we engage in is felt by the living whole and contributes to the shape and quality of the whole. In turn, this also shapes us and who and what we are. Even if the effect of each individual human is negligible in the grand scale of things, I feel we have an ethical duty to act in a way that brings awareness to all of our interactions. This ethical attitude represents brahmacharya.
“The Nectar of Life” by Edward Foster
Relationship occurs through our felt embodied existence. We engage in intercourse with our environment through our organs of perception and action. If we are to practice brahmacharya by bringing more awareness to our relationships and to our exchanges of information and substance with our environment, the only way do so is to develop our sensitivity and capacity to feel in the embodied state.
Humans have progressively objectified and separated themselves from the rest of the organic living Earth over the past 12 000 years, so it is no coincidence that we have similarly attempted to abstract ourselves away from our own organic living bodies. Modern science has explored the theory that the body is nothing more than a linear causal process which arises out of inert, lifeless matter. Modern religions view the body and its natural instincts and feelings as an obstacle or temptation which gets in the way of our path to liberation or heaven. It is common for practitioners of yoga, meditation or other spiritual traditions to subscribe to the view that the goal is to transcend or overcome the physical body. The body is seen as belonging to the realm of the “lower self” and if indulged in, it leads in the opposite direction of liberation and freedom. Just as modern humans separated themselves from “nature” and began to view it is threatening, hostile, and something to be conquered and subdued through modern technology and civilization, so also we have come to view the physical reality of our own bodies with an identical attitude.
Our attempts to subdue and control nature for our own selfish desires and purposes are backfiring. Eventually, the living Earth will rebalance itself in a way that may make it inhospitable for human life. Similarly, a person who wages war against their own physical body cannot possibly expect to attain health, freedom or peace.
The pathway back home to the Earth must begin with our own bodies. If we intend to deepen and resensitize our connection to the rest of the living Earth so that we can form more appropriate and reciprocally beneficial relationships with it, we must first do that with our own bodies. Before we can drop back into and love the Earth, we must drop back into and love our bodies. If the Earth and all of its beautiful parts are to be revered and considered sacred, as they are in animist belief systems, then our own body must also be treated and perceived with the same quality of reverence. This means embracing our physicality as a vital and essential aspect of who and what we are. To feel this reverence for our organic physicality is an aspect of embodiment.
Embodiment does not mean paying more attention to the body. It does not mean taking care of the body, or being “in” the body. We do not own the body. It is not a house, or a vehicle. These concepts, though perhaps well intentioned, still approach the body as an object which is fundamentally separate from our true essence. It is analogous to those who promote human beings as stewards or caretakers of the Earth. Again, this is a well intentioned concept, but it ultimately perpetuates the sense of separation or otherness between human beings and the rest of organic life.
True embodiment means accepting and experiencing that we ARE the body. The fundamental essence of human nature is that we are physically embodied beings. Any spirituality that attempts to take us away from this truth by denying the ultimate reality of our physicality can only lead to inner conflict and suffering. All of the magic and wonder of human existence happens through our physical existence. Body, mind and spirit are not separate things. They are just different aspects of one flowing process which is life. Similarly, human beings are not separate from the rest of our environment. We are just another manifestation of the creative impulse of nature itself. We ARE the Earth, we ARE nature, we ARE the environment. When one establishes an appropriate experience and perception of one’s own body, the experience of being in perpetual intercourse and communion with the rest of the living Earth flows effortlessly and naturally.
This is the “integration” that yoga and meditation help to bring about for me. I do not believe in eastern versions of enlightenment or liberation or western concepts of heaven. Suffering is an inherent part of being alive. There is nothing to fear about suffering and there is no way to escape from or transcend it. Coming to terms with suffering, rather than striving for an unattainable state of freedom from suffering, is a more grounded, effective and integrated way to exist. Embracing all of the joys and pains and the infinite variations in feeling that the human being is capable of experiencing, is to embrace the participatory essence of life itself. To be fully embodied in ourselves is to be fully embodied in the process of life and to fully experience this entire range of feeling. It is only in this state of being that we can practice brahmacharya – relationship – with the necessary sensitivity.
All of the wisdom of billions of years of organic evolution is contained within this body and this Earth. The abstract concepts and ideas that have arisen from the human intellect are much more recently evolved. The deeper, older, and wiser secrets of life can only be found – felt – by tuning in to the organic resonance of the living, breathing Earth, via our own highly sensitive human bodies. It is our bodies that are capable of listening, and receiving this wisdom. Relationships must be phenomenologically felt, and only with our bodies can we feel.
I often hear yoga practitioners speak condescendingly about others who focus on asana as a physical practice. “For him, it is just a PHYSICAL practice…” is one of the most insulting things one can say in the yoga world. I feel that ALL practices which lead us to the truth of human nature are physical. Ashtanga asana practice and Vipassana meditation are two of the most potentially powerful sensitizing and embodying techniques that exist. I have used both techniques as methods of embodiment for nearly 20 years, and for me they are simply two different aspects of the same process of spiritual and organic embodiment. The sensitivity and intuitive organic understanding which develops through long term engagement with these practices has led me to realize that ALL of the practices are physical. Brahmacharya is also a physical practice. Not because we are using willpower to physically restrain ourselves, but because responsible, authentic, felt relationship can only occur through the attuned and sensitized physical body.
Animals understand this instinctively. Watching an animal move through and engage with its natural environment is pure yoga. The animal is instinctively one with its environment. There is no conceptual separation, there is only embodied wisdom in action. The deepest experiences in a yoga or meditation practice occur under the same conditions, when we fully drop into and surrender to the embodied wisdom of the organic, intuitive body and breath and simply flow in that state, free from the agonizing separation that occurs with the delusions of the conceptualizing mind. Nature is enlightened. Our bodies and breath are enlightened. We need to find our way back into that state of organic wisdom and being.
“Towards Enlightenment” by Edward Foster
Thank you to visionary artist Edward Foster, for once again allowing me to reproduce images of his beautiful paintings for this article. I also used Edward’s art in my Becoming Animal article. His artwork resonates strongly with the way I perceive human nature and our world. Please visit his website to see more of his artwork.
Thank you to Clayton Loizou for helpful editing and suggestions about the article.
Other language translations:
The Polish translation of this article can be found here. Thanks to Marek Łaskawiec for the Polish translation.