The basic insight that both ancient Greek philosophers and early Christian monks came to understand is that a human being's interaction with the world is through the lens of the mind. Interestingly, what is driving contemporary therapy is an analogous insight: sex happens primarily in the brain, not the organs. Reclaim the brain, goes the wisdom, and you reclaim freedom. You lose your addiction to the internet or porn or food or whatever. Philosophers and monks, athletes of the soul, lived on the extremes of what was necessary for a life. They trained their minds to live on the very least possible: the least food, the least entertainment, the least interaction with other people. (My favorite are the stylites who lived for many years atop a pillar.)

In this age of fascination with what is sustainable, it is interesting to consider that these philosophers and monks found happiness without consumption. The default American lens of desire is "more!" The default monastic lens is "less." And what is remarkable is that these spiritual athletes seem to have discovered that one can be free, and therefore happy, with less.

Which brings us back around to Madison Avenue. It is difficult to imagine a monk falling prey to the need for a Prada handbag, or jeans from Abercrombie and Fitch, or body spray or anything else their clients are hawking. Their freedom to understand the cravings of the soul allows them to name what is truly necessary. And while most of us will not be monks, all of us want freedom from manipulation. Spiritual exercises are about freedom, and about the reorientation of desire toward what our souls really seek: namely, love.

Read more from Tim Muldoon's series on Sex and Christianity.

  1. Part 1: Sex and Christianity
  2. Part 2: The Sexual Divide
  3. Part 3: Two Sexual Myths
  4. Part 4: My Kind of Feminism
  5. Part 5: Why Are Catholics Obsessed With Sex?