Recently I read a story about how large numbers of men and women in their 20s and 30s in Japan have lost all interest in sex. It’s “mendokusai.” That’s Japanese for “too troubling.” As a result, the birth rate in Japan continues to fall year after year. For the first time in 2012 in Japan, adult diapers outsold baby diapers! That can’t be good. If this abstinence trend – which they’re labeling Celibacy Syndrome – continues, Japan will eventually go the way of America’s Shaker communities.
The Grass Isn’t Always Best for Eating
There are probably many reasons that young people end up being disinterested in sex. The story suggests things like the increase in digital entertainment, love of work more than people, the rise of independent and ambitious women, and a proliferation of soshoku danshi (“grass-eating men”).
At bottom however, I think there’s one primary cause. When a man interviewed in the story says, “I find some of my female friends attractive, but I’ve learned to live without sex. Emotional entanglements are too complicated. I can’t be bothered,” to me what he’s really saying is: he has a diminished capacity for skillfully managing arousal. And I don’t mean sexual arousal. I mean neuroceptive arousal – the mostly unconscious emotional arousal associated with stress and anxiety.
Because so much of our daily lived experience is processed unconsciously (up to 99% by some estimates), arousal, unskillfully managed doesn’t beat against the inside of our skull and loudly announce itself. Rather, what it tends to do is move us towards people, places and things where our neuro-physiological states are most easily managed. For some 35-year-olds in Japan, that’s remaining at home and continuing to live with mom and dad. And avoiding romantic relationships of all kinds.
Problematic Brain Integration
Is this a problem for the brain? I think it is. As Marion Solomon, Diana Fosha and Dan Siegel point out in respective chapters in their anthology, The Healing Power of Emotion, neural integration mostly happens when unconscious, embodied emotional states are surfaced and made conscious. Structuring my days by turning towards less arousing relationships and situations and completely avoiding those uncomfortable states doesn’t seem to be the wisest course of action where the brain and emotional growth and intelligence is concerned. Not only that, but the abstainers lose all possibility for increasing their brains capacity to process energy and information to the point where they’re able to see stars and orgasm in colors, as this study describes.
To Sex or Not to Sex
But what about people who deliberately choose to become celibate as part of spiritual pursuits? I have several notions about that. One is, echoed by a zen teacher who was once asked why he chose to live a celibate life. His response: “Why do you engage in sexual behavior?” The questioner’s answer: “Because it feels so good!” The Zen teacher’s reply: “Precisely!”
This anecdote, to me, represents two different stages of spiritual/emotional/neurological development and integration. A life of celibacy, deliberately pursued and maintained, becomes something that ideally, is allowed to unfold organically from the inside. It grows naturally out of internal impulses. When it’s imposed from the outside, what you end up with are aspirants and clergy who act out unskillfully, and people for whom sexual interactions end up being hyper-arousingly uncomfortable. Sometimes even traumatic.
What might be a better course? Well, as one possibility which social neuroscience might suggest … Marshmallow Training for Grass-eaters. This is a somewhat esoteric reference to Walter Mischel’s famous Marshmallow Test at Bing Nursery School on the Stanford Campus. Kids were left alone with a single marshmallow and promised two if they waited 15 minutes for the experimenter to return. Turns out the kids who were able to delay gratification did much better down the road in life than those unable to handle the stress of the situation.
The ability to delay gratification is an outcome of increased neurons and connections to the prefrontal cortex – Arousal Regulation Central. And these days we have an extensive menu for increasing those neuron numbers and connections so as to be able to manage stressful situations. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training is one method. Paced Breathing, where you extend the exhale longer than the inhale, is another. Right Listening practice is another skill-training that grows the ability to manage stress effectively. Then, of course, there are all the creative, hybrid ways each of us might come up with that are unique and perfectly matched to our own life stress levels and developmental needs. But it all begins with the awareness that stress and arousal need to be skillfully recognized and addressed. Get those grass-eaters on that, will you?