Brahmacharya is traditionally translated as “sexual continence” or “abstinence.” The word also refers to adolescence – in the culture where the ten practices originated, it was traditional for people to enter school and undertake religious studies during the period of their lives when their hormones raged.
Raised in the WASP tradition, I was taught from my earliest years to eschew creature comforts in favor of physical exercise and activities of the mind. In my family we restrained ourselves and to tried to be good, habits which have propelled me for better or worse through most of my life.
Perhaps this is why I am particularly sensitive to the dangers of abusing the principle of brahmacharya. My wasply tendency to abstain has carried with it a kind of discomfort with easy physical pleasures, providing fertile ground for all kinds of mental torment. It is hard for me to look at the principle of continence deeply without being aware of the dark qualities it shares with my own culture.
The etymology of the word brahmacharya seems to offer some refuge. It means “Brahma’s path.” Thus the translation by BKS Iyengar, the colossus of modern yoga, is roughly, “to see Brahma in everyone.” To me this interpretation is appealing and instructive. It reminds me of an ancient Greek aphorism I have read and loved, that every stranger may be a god in disguise. But to my ear, brahmacharya in this translation lacks the subtlety of the other yamas. Appealing as it is, this translation seems too easy a sleight of words; it has the too-sweet smell of a platitude.
A Hindu friend of mine offered another interpretation. He views the tradition of abstention during adolescence as a practice in learning how to manage desire. One waits to enact sexual desire in the context of one’s deeper values – the expression of the permanent bond of marriage, and the creation of a family.
From this experience the youthful practitioner learns an important lesson – that he or she is capable of sublimating toward a deeper purpose even the most powerful energies. Having learned and practiced the skill by managing adolescent sexual energy, one can then apply it to the subtler and darker energies – such as frustration, anger, resentment, or yearning in its many varieties.
This interpretation resonates fully with the lessons of my own middle age. Slowly I am learning that the powerful emotions – either negative or positive ones – are potent catalysts for internal change. This is a lesson that surprises me over and over again. Sometimes lately when strong feelings arise, I neither express nor repress them, but only try to feel them fully, with my mind and body. In these moments my self-understanding seems to grow by leaps and bounds; my experience of living deepens by the fathom.
When I feel hunger
my body wants to eat
so it seeks relief:
crackers, chips, an empty box.
When I feel anger
my bruises need to hurt
so they seek a tender thing
their bitter voice can cut.
And when sadness comes
my heart, to be heard
finds the widest plain it knows
and lets its stories gallop there.
Do you see the crow’s home,
lone and high in the crook of a tree?
This is the nest of nerves
that nestles in my bones,
where my self returns
sated with seeking,
ready to leave its sweet carrion.
And when I finally feel
those black majestic wings
close in upon themselves,
I can be content
to observe the stars
whose gravity hungers for earth
and the wind, endlessly restless
and the luminous soil, so tired
from giving life.
Then comes the knowledge
that in stillness my own hunger
too, and anger, and even sadness
can be savored,
in the way that I love the shape
of a barren branch,
or the mineral taste
of a rock my roots embrace,
the beautiful intelligence
of the crow with a shiny thing
in whose blackness there is gold
before she flies.