We’re talking about the Yama-s, which means we’re talking about living in right relationship with the world. And in this sermon, we’re specifically talking about the 4th yama, brahmacarya, which means we’re talking about energy—energy that is kept in balance and rightly used. And just in case the connection between living in right relationship with the world and having balanced energy isn’t already apparent to you, let me ask you two quick questions:
Do you treat people—like your family, your coworkers, or even strangers—better when you’re hungry or well-fed?
Do you treat people better when you’re tired or well-rested?
These questions have obvious answers right? Most people I know are kinder, more generous, more patient, and just generally easier to be around when they’re well-fed and well-rested.
Alcoholics Anonymous has this great acronym. H-A-L-T. Which, of course, spells HALT and is intended to remind folks that if they’re feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired it’s not the right time to act or make a decision. It’s the right time to halt—to stop, to pause. Whether or not you struggle with issues of addiction, you can see that the idea of this acronym is spot-on. When we’re hungry, angry, lonely, and tired, it’s much, much harder to act from our highest Self and much, much harder to move toward our highest purpose.
Which brings me back to the yama of brahmacarya, because one half of the word, carya, has to do with movement and conduct. What direction is our conduct moving us in? The other part of the word, of course, is Brahman, which means vast expanse. It’s the whole universe, the totality of everything. Brahman is the Absolute. Brahmacarya, then, can be understood as brahmic conduct. We want to behave in such a way that we move closer to Brahman—closer to our understanding of Divine Mystery. My teacher translates brahmacarya as: “movement in the direction of harmony with the totality.” He says that: “All the action you engage in should be harmonious with the totality, with everything.” It’s a big definition. Brahmacarya is a big deal word! How do we conduct ourselves in such a way that we exist in right relationship, in harmony, with everything, with the totality, with the Absolute?
Before we dive deeper into this huge question, let me pause. Because if you’ve ever studied the yama-s before, you’ve probably seen brahmacarya translated as celibacy. And I want to make sure there’s no confusion here…
So, let me tell you what my teacher told me. There are a couple of places where traditionally, the word brahmacarya referred to people who refrained from sexual activity and so the word became connected with the practice of celibacy. Hinduism divides life into four stages, each with their own dharmic responsibilities—and, relevant to our conversation here, each with their own relationship to sex. The four ashrama-dharma-s (the four stages) are brahmacharya, grihasta, vanaprastha, and sannyasa, or student, householder, retiree, and renunciate. The first stage of life is brahmacharya or the student phase. Because the young student isn’t yet sexually mature and should be focusing all their energy on learning about themselves and the world, they’re not yet engaging in a sexual relationship. And then, of course, there’s monastic life, where a student of Brahman, called a brahmacharin, remains celibate no matter their age for religious reasons. Celibacy is part of their religious vows.
So with this in mind, let’s return to our basic understanding of Brahmacarya, which is conduct in keeping with Brahman. We want to behave in such a way that we move closer to Brahman—closer to our understanding of Divine Mystery. Sex is a wildly potent force. And the yama of Brahmacarya calls us to examine how we use it. Does the conduct of our sexual life bring us closer to or farther away from God? This is a big question that carries so much baggage. We’ve been deeply conditioned in this culture to view sexuality as something that’s sinful and dangerous. We’ve been told that there’s a right way to engage in sex and a wrong way. And because sexual energy is so powerful, I have a feeling we’ll be dealing with strong opinions about what constitutes as right and wrong in regards to sex for as long as sex is around, which will be forever. So please, take a moment to check your conditioning. What were you taught about sexual morality? Observe your reactions, in this moment, to a conversation about sex.
And then take a breath. Feel your feet on the floor. And return to our question: Does the conduct of your sexual life bring you closer to or farther away from your understanding of Divine Mystery? Only you can answer this question for yourself. Whether we choose to abstain from sex or to engage in sexual activity, sexual energy remains a powerful force that must be handled with intention. And part of this intention includes the other yama-s. I don’t have to explain the horrors of sexual misconduct to you, because sadly, most of us have personal experiences of it. Our sexual expression (whatever it looks like, even if it’s abstinence) must be free of violence, dishonesty, and theft. This is how we live in right sexual relationship with others.
Now, before we return to talking about energy in general, let’s take a quick moment to celebrate the awesome power of sex! As I’ve already said, sexual energy is a potent force. Nothing, nothing exists without it… In his commentary on brahmacarya, Ravi Ravindra wrote: “the whole of nature is driven by this energy.” Think about that. It’s incredible! Sexual energy is in every part of nature. We watch the death and rebirth of the world around us every year. Fecundity surrounds us! In her commentary on Brahmacarya, Nischala Joy Devi wrote: “As we respect and esteem the vital energy, we are humbled to realize it holds the power to create another human being.” Inherent in our sexuality is the drive and the means to create life. The energetic power of this reality is overwhelming and it must be respected.
Yoga Sutra 2.38 describes the potential of harnessing this power. It says that: Upon establishment in brahmacharya, great vigor is obtained. The sanskrit is: brahmacharya pratisthāyām vīrya lābhah.
Virya means vigor, vitality, and in some contexts, it can even refer to semen. This sutra tells us that if we can build, contain, and harness the power inherent in our sexual energy, great vigor is obtained!
And great vigor is a gift. In order to conduct ourselves in such a way that we live in right relationship, in harmony, with everything, with the totality we must have great vigor. When our energy is depleted or out of balance we’re weakened and it becomes much, much harder to act from our highest Self and much, much harder to move toward our highest purpose.
We talk a lot about sexual energy when we’re talking about brahmacarya because it’s such a powerful energetic force, but we can never forget that we’re multi-dimensional beings and our energy is multi-faceted. We have physical energy, pranic energy, mental energy, emotional energy, spiritual energy. How do we nourish our energy on all levels? How do we build, contain, and harness our energy so that we can use it to move toward Divine Mystery and practice loving better??? This is the question of brahmacarya. In his glossary explanation, Pandit Rajmani describes brahmacarya as “the practice designed to preserve and nurture life-sustaining energy.”
If we want to move through the world with integrity and love, we need vitality. Which means we must learn moderation. We have to find the balance between indulgence and deprivation. Speaking on this topic my teacher says: “Don’t sleep too much, don’t sleep too little. Don’t eat too much, don’t eat too little. Don’t sex too much, don’t sex too little. Don’t exercise too much, don’t exercise too little.” I think he’s referencing the 6th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna:
“Yoga is not eating too much, nor is it not eating at all, and not the habit of sleeping too much, and not keeping awake either. For one who is moderate in food and diversion, whose actions are disciplined, who is moderate in sleep and waking, yoga destroys all sorrow.” (Bhagavad Gita 6.16-17)
Everything we do creates our energetic reality. How do we build, contain, and harness our energy so that we can use it to move toward Divine Mystery and practice loving better?