He saw lust as an evil because of its dangerous allure; it’s sweet poison. He interpreted the iconic snake’s saying, “Your eyes will be opened,” as meaning that Adam and Eve will become aware of the evilness of their sexual urges. He argued that in Eden they would have had sex without the ardor of lust.
His interpretation of the story is that man was not meant to feel lust. Procreation would have occurred in Eden without lust, without tainted sexual urgings, a sexless act. But he chose to sin and so man was forever lost. To Augustine, the importance of the virgin birth of Christ is that by definition there was no lust involved and so Christ was born pure, unburdened by an evil act of his parents. (Stephen Greenblatt, “The Invention of Sex,” The New Yorker, June 19, 2017.)
And so for much of the Christian era, sex has been considered dirty, although necessary for procreation of the race. Dirty because it perforce involves lust. And lust is dirty because it resulted from Adam and Eve’s eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The result of this point of view has been a disaster.
I have argued in several posts in my other blog, www.preservingamericanvalues.com, for a different take on the Garden of Eden story. Let’s review the story. As told in Genesis, in the paradise that God created, man and woman were naked, but they were not embarrassed by their nakedness and they were one with all things. The only thing forbidden to them was to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They lived in a world where there was no knowledge of right or wrong, good or bad. Interestingly, the paradise of Genesis is virtually identical with Buddhist Nirvana.
But once they ate the fruit of the tree, they became aware of and were embarrassed by their nakedness. They now had knowledge of value judgments; they were no longer innocent. And no longer innocent, they were forced out of the garden into a world full of the frustrations of cravings, fear, and strife.
The Abrahamic faiths’ take on this story is that man is a sinner because he violated God’s commandment. And that women are the causal source of sin because it was Eve who listened to the serpent and tempted Adam to eat the fruit; it is thus also a cautionary tale regarding sexual temptation. Man can only be saved by obeying God, which is to obey the multilayered moral and ritual strictures of His religion (take your pick as to which one).
But if one looks at the story with fresh eyes, without all the layers of religious interpretation by rabbis, monks, imams, and others, a different lesson takes shape.
The real lesson is that the world of God is the world of innocence … whether in the Garden of Eden or in the here and now. A world where there is no knowledge of good and evil because man is one with himself and all things; he experiences all things directly, free of labels. We cannot control what others do, but we can control how we react to that experience. This is the world of freedom from the known. And if all men were thus, there would be no evil because there would be no desire for what one does not have; there would be no insecurity. There would be no good because man would not compare himself to others. People would act from a pure spirit.
Please note: “No knowledge of good or evil” does not mean that one is blind to the things people do which bring about suffering rather than joy, which are harmful rather than helpful. (Such things may not have happened in the Garden of Eden, but it is certainly true in the here and now, which is not the world of God.) It means that these things are observed clearly … one is very much aware of what one is doing and what is going on in the world … but without judgmental labels. This is not a distinction without a difference because labels are infused with emotion which impairs judgment.
The point of the story is not so much that God’s commandment was broken, but because man ate the fruit and thus gained knowledge of good and evil, mankind lost its innocence. And he was never the same.
In that sense, the events in the Garden of Eden have truly impacted man ever since. The story does relate dramatically, metaphorically, that man would be separated from the Tree of Life, from the knowledge of his true self, his God-essence, having gained knowledge of good and evil.
But not that man for all eternity will be burdened with original sin and be born a sinner. That is the spin that St.Augustine and much of Christianity put on the story. And as a result, millions of people in each generation have believed, because they were so taught, that they were born sinners. Not a healthy self-concept.
Instead, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the mystical traditions of Christianity (Gnosticism), Judaism (Kabbalah), and Islam (Sufism) all believe that man is born with the God/Buddha essence inside him. That is his true nature, and that remains his nature for life.
But as with Adam and Eve, he typically is pulled away from his true nature by life experiences. They lead him to make the choice, albeit usually unknowingly, to have knowledge of good and evil, to lose his innocence, and so the tragedy of the Garden of Evil happens over and over again.
The goal of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the mystic traditions is to break that cycle. To enable man to reject his knowledge of good and evil, the perspective of his ego-mind, and return to his God/Buddha essence and see the world through those eyes. Again this is seeing very clearly, neither through rose-colored glasses nor darkly tinted ones.
Before looking at Augustine’s conundrum as an example, let’s discuss the word “lust.” Looking it up in the dictionary, it means an uncontrolled, illicit desire, a craving, unbridled. That certainly fits how Augustine was looking at the sex drive.
But Augustine was not right that “lust” is necessary to arouse the genitals and thus procreate. Desire is what’s necessary. And desire, like the other emotions, is not in and of itself a problem. Desire is not sinful; it is natural and human. The problem, as with the other emotions, is when man is controlled by or obsesses over sexual desire and it becomes lust.
This is what happens when man becomes separated from his God/Buddha essence. If one looks at the seven deadly sins … lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride … these are all at base natural human feelings or needs which have been perverted by obsession and craving into sins.
Had they remained in the allegorical Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve would have felt desire in order to procreate. But not having eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes “were not opened,” and so they would not have seen anything sinful or embarrassing in their sexuality. Nor would they have had any desire to perpetuate the pleasure they experienced by doing it over and over again, unrelated to the process of procreation. The God/Buddha essence within us does not seek pleasure because it does not need pleasure to experience peace and joy. They would thus not have experienced uncontrolled, unbridled, illicit desire = lust.
Which brings up an increasingly significant problem in our contemporary society … both the primary focus of sex being pleasure and its being inextricably bound up with the idea of love. This is a tricky area to navigate.
From the start, we have to remember that the sex drive is part of our animal heritage. And it is more than a biological necessity. There are a large number of animal species that are known to masturbate in order to experience the pleasure of arousal and orgasm. And certainly it is well known that males will typically mate any female who is available and in heat. Indiscriminate and rampant sex is very much part of nature.
But man is an animal who has greatly enlarged capacities for thinking. If the idea of evolution is the improvement and survival of the species, then the development of a man-animal with a larger brain has to be looked at from that perspective.
And that perspective tells us that his brain should provide man with the ability to exercise self-control and experience the freedom that results, rather than as St. Augustine felt be in a situation of no control. How then should these matters be approached by man?
First, I think one has to admit the total failure of the way our society, and we as individuals, have dealt with this matter over the years, and increasingly so in more recent times. We as a society are sex-obsessed. Whether it’s based on our insecurity or on the way sex is used and portrayed in media, sex has become the go-to legitimate drug of choice … part high-inducing, part coping mechanism … when all else is failing. Men use it to generate a feeling of power. Women use it to generate a feeling of control. Both men and women use it to provide some pleasure and excitement in lives that are mostly devoid of either. And they use it to provide some momentary semblance of intimacy in a relationship where there really isn’t any or very little.
We talk about love at first sight. No, that’s lust at first sight. It has nothing to do with love. Indeed, most people have no concept what “love” really means because they didn’t experience it growing up and they have no role models, whether real or in the media. And so we don’t fall in love, we fall in lust. Those squishy feelings we develop have nothing to do with love.
At some point we marry because we need someone in our life. After some time passes, though, about half of us divorce because there just isn’t the love necessary to meet the challenges of a human relationship. Most of the other half also don’t have that love, but they don’t have the guts to admit it or divorce.
But in the 20-something generation, perhaps because there’s an awareness of the illusion of love, they don’t even go there. For them it’s just an endless round of sex, whether it’s in short affairs or with “friends with benefits.” It’s sex just to feel good, to feel wanted, desired. All based on insecurity.
So I think there is no option but to try and wipe the slate clean and start fresh.
First, what is love? There are two essential components of love. The first is that you love someone for who the person is, not for what needs of yours they fulfill. Such love is unconditional. The second is that you are totally committed to the relationship and want nothing more than to offer the other joy and compassion. The other’s welfare is your main thought. Ideally, one’s love is returned and the relationship is reciprocal.
Love is thus a totally self-less act. This does not mean that one doesn’t benefit from loving and the relationship. One certainly does and knows it. But you don’t love because you are thinking of yourself.
Second, what is the role of sex? Notice that this definition of love has nothing to do with sex. Sex is both unnecessary and irrelevant to the existence of love. One can be in a deeply loving, committed, relationship that is not sexual. I for one can attest to that.
Sex has only one biological function … procreation. All the other uses we make of sex are functions of the mind. And because most of our minds are somewhat messed up (we’re insecure, we feel inadequate, we crave this and that, we hate, etc.), our attitude towards sex is infected by these neuroses.
Does sex have a legitimate role in a relationship beyond procreation? There is no question that people often, not always, feel close, intimate, when they have sex, even though they don’t feel that way towards each other otherwise during the day. And this is the problem. One should no more have sex in an attempt to solve a relationship’s problems than one should have children in order to save the relationship. Neither works.
But assuming one has a truly loving relationship as I’ve defined it, does sex have a role? I want to say yes. Part of loving is wanting to give the other person joy … in this case pleasure. So sex would seem to have a beneficial role if approached in this way … selflessly. The question is, can sex ever be carried out selflessly? One can I think approach it that way, but once in the middle of it, I think it becomes predominantly an act of self-gratification.
It’s true that over the last few decades there has been much more emphasis placed on men thinking about the other person’s physical needs, the woman’s orgasm, and many men (what percentage I have no idea, but I would suspect far less than the majority) are more tender and considerate in their lovemaking than in earlier times. But even then, it becomes a matter of self-gratification. How well did you do in pleasing your partner? As well as a source of insecurity. Thus the familiar comic line, “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”
I fear that the answer to my question is that even if one was so spiritually advanced that he or she was truly selfless, one could not have selfless sex. The nature of the biological, evolutionary, act is such that it brings out man’s basic survival instinct, which is definitely not selfless.
The other problem with introducing sex for pleasure into an otherwise well-balanced, truly loving relationship is that it would create tensions. Since sex is by its very nature not a selfless act, it would revive insecurities and other emotions that would have otherwise been mostly put to rest in our ego-mind. And those emotions are potentially destructive of a loving relationship.
Thus, in an ideal world, relationships between two people would be loving ones that would not include sex for pleasure. Whether heterosexual or homosexual, it would make no difference to the nature and value of the relationship, either to the individuals or to society. Sex would be limited to the purpose of procreation.
Now, a love relationship without sex or without children has always been looked at askance by others, and still is even in our more liberated society. Probably because for millennia the focus of marriage’s purpose was to have children (and provide security). But in today’s overpopulated world, this too should be looked at with fresh eyes.
But we do not live in an ideal world, nor is that foreseeable in the near or probably even distant future. So, what should mankind do? How do we at least transition from the disastrous situation we currently experience to something that is better for people’s wellbeing? Where to start!?
We start by sensitizing individuals to the disaster that our current and historic approach to love and sex has had on ourselves, our partners, and our children. There is no lack of evidence of this disaster. It is the responsibility of civil and religious authority figures, and especially the media, to provide leadership in this area and be of service to people.
In sensitizing people to the problems, it is critical that it be very clear that individuals are not to blame for the situation. It is not their fault, even though they participated through their actions.
They are not to blame because their actions, while seemingly voluntary, were not the result of free will. We have all been programmed by our life experiences and by society to act as we act. Our range of true free will is thus very narrow, contrary to the assumptions of our legal and moral systems. This does not absolve us of responsibility, but it does absolve us of guilt.
Once this groundwork has been laid, the following steps can be advocated. Here again, the leadership of religious leaders and the media is of vital importance.
First, it starts with the individual, who needs to rediscover his/her true self, their true nature, reconnect with the God/Buddha essence inside them and thus free themselves from the control of all the emotions, judgments, cravings, and attachments that cause suffering. For each person will become aware that their suffering is not caused by whatever they experience in the world, but by how they reacted or react to those experiences. And they will come to know that they have everything they need inside themselves to be at peace and happy.
As the reader knows, getting to this point requires much discipline and hard work. You are attempting to change the paradigms of your life, everything that has controlled how you have related to yourself and the world around you for your entire life. It’s not easy, but it is achievable. I have tried in this blog to make the path more accessible and it is the subject of the current book I’m working on, Finding Inner Peace - A Handbook for People of All Faiths and Non-Believers, as well as my previous books.
Second, with that change in attitude and self-image, the individual approaches people differently. For example, since one knows they have everything they need inside themselves to be at peace and happy, when they look at another person as a possible relationship, they do not think foremost about how that person can fulfill their needs, but whether the person is a kind and loving person, thoughtful, caring, as well as compatible in life-styles and interests.
Third, when you know you have everything you need inside yourself to be at peace and happy, and are free of insecurity, you have no need to experience the pleasure of sexual gratification. Further because you are at one with your partner, intimate and trusting, there is no need for sex to reach that point. Sex becomes solely the province of the desire to have children.
Fourth, possessed of this new attitude about yourself and the world around you, you are totally committed to your love relationship. You have no desire to entertain amorous or sexual thoughts or actions towards any other individual.
Clearly this would be a total 180 degree turn from current and past attitudes about love and sex. I truly don’t know whether given our training and our ego-mind such a transformation is possible. But I do know from my own personal experience that with deep spiritual work we can move substantially in that direction. The fate of our happiness rests on our taking action.