issue 25 Winter/Spring 05
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Twilight blues and the urge to cruise

Sexual craving once dominated Mahananda's mind. Now a photographer and an ordained Buddhist, he has discovered life after cruising

My first sexual experience occurred in a public lavatory with a man when I was aged 13. Even before adolescence I was attracted to other boys, and I realised that, in this sense, I was different to other boys. I was also different in being the confused, only child of a Polish refugee and a Viennese Holocaust survivor, growing up in a charmless south London suburb.

My father, a lawyer who came to Britain in 1940, met my mother in 1946, the day she stepped off a boat in London, having endured Auschwitz and lost her entire family in the concentration camps. A year later I was born. Parental expectations were heaped upon me. Not only was I expected to succeed in this new country, I was also expected to repopulate the world - and replace my mother's family. But I was gay!

That first sexual encounter set in motion a pattern of behaviour that was to last for decades. It was in the late 1950s and early 60s - before the gay liberation movement. Homosexuality was illegal. I grew up with a great sense of oppression, isolated by my sexuality and, at a deeper level, by the role I assumed as vicarious witness to the Holocaust. These burdens made it hard for me to form friendships. So I resorted to anonymous sexual encounters - whether in 'cottages' (public toilets) or cruising in open spaces in London. I got caught up in the excitement and drama of these illicit encounters. It felt highly addictive. There was also a need to escape from the loneliness of my life.

So, although outwardly I was leading a normal, middle-class life, inwardly my sex life was the overriding preoccupation. I was obsessive. I was also a heavy smoker of cigarettes, and occasionally marijuana. I was definitely craving as an escape from my existence.

I yearned for male company, to be in a male world, but I had only found it in the louche world of cottages and cruising. I also enjoyed the risk, the edge of danger. When I was in my teens and early 20s, there was no positive sense of being gay. As the years went by, the culture began to open out and gay liberation took hold, so increasingly there were gay bars to visit. But by then I was so shy and isolated in this area; I also had a taste for anonymous encounters, where you didn't have to talk. I 'came out' aged 27, but I didn't really come out about my nocturnal activities. I was secretive because I feared I'd lose something vital by disclosing them.

When I became a Buddhist 15 years ago, I knew I needed to address this. It was necessary in order to integrate myself. But it's been a long journey - for various reasons that had little to do with sexual craving. My habits were a way of blotting out painful feelings.

Much of that suffering was linked to my parents. My father was physically and emotionally distant; he worked obsessively while I was growing up and then died when I was 18. My lack of relationship with him was doubtless an element in my compulsive sexual craving. Meanwhile I had internalised my mother's experience of the concentration camp. I saw her as a kind of icon: she had suffered so horrendously that I felt I couldn't cause her any more pain. In fact I didn't express any anger towards her until I was in my 40s. So I put on a 'front' of worldly success, working as a teacher and being outwardly genial and charming; then I acted out another side of myself in a twilight world. I was riven with internal conflict.

It is primarily through Buddhism and psychotherapy that I've changed that. All my life I've felt agitated. It has been a strand underlying most of my experience. I began to address this agitation in my late 30s when I started receiving and subsequently teaching the Alexander Technique. So began my journey into self-awareness. A few years later I took up meditation, which had a direct effect on this agitation. I first encountered the Dharma at the London Buddhist Centre, and for a while it seemed like the only place in the city where I felt sane.

I am hugely grateful for the positive environment I found around the Buddhist centre. And for the past 15 years I have been remaking my life within a Buddhist context. Twelve years ago I moved into a large Buddhist men's community. I tried out single-sex retreats and saw how shy I'd become around men. I also enjoyed it hugely: learning to give affection to guys as a mature man, in a completely non-sexual way.

Over time the wider Buddhist community has met my needs for friendship and intimacy, so that the sexual craving doesn't seem such an issue any more. I even decided to share a bedroom in the community in order to be less secretive, especially around sneaking off cruising. I didn't want to lead a double life anymore.

So my sexual patterns have changed through conscious efforts and through refining my pleasures. I enjoy the arts, music, and have been teaching myself the accordion. I'm generally much happier, more content. These days I rarely feel the emptiness I used to experience in the past. I've looked closely at my sexual addiction and have resolved a lot of neuroses.

A few years ago I had a relationship with a guy who really helped me to shift away from anonymous sex in public places. I began to see the danger I was putting myself in. So I've graduated to a gay sauna club. It's a much safer, more human environment. I can relax, have a laugh, a cappuccino, talk to people, and may not even have sex. The compulsive element has largely fallen away.

As I've become more self-aware, I'm more able to stand outside the sexual craving. At the sauna I can watch other people's craving and can feel more distant from it, have more perspective on it being simply craving. Now that I'm less in its grip, it can even seem entertaining.

I used to be emotionally addicted whenever I was in a sexual relationship but that, too, has loosened. Having a wider circle of close friends takes the pressure off any exclusive relationship. Nowadays I can have intimacy without sexual contact.

I've noticed that I learn most quickly from painful experience. Certainly I've learnt a great deal about craving, and the destructive patterns that emerge from it. Through a mixture of meditation, ethical practice, retreats and working with other Buddhists, I've grown to appreciate myself more deeply. And feel warmly connected to and affirmed by others.

My creative energies have been directed into deepening spiritual friendships. I've also benefited from the conscious path of opening up, self-disclosure and confession. And in the last five years or so I have been exploring artistic media, expressing myself visually particularly through photography.

Now, aged 57, I see that my sexual craving has been part of a cluster of cravings - a range of strategies for not experiencing myself deeply. But that way of operating is no longer satisfying, even in the short term. After 12 years of Buddhist communal living I'm now poised to leave the community. This feels very positive. I'm confident that I have the tools and the understanding to work with any compulsions that arise. Of course I still crave sex, but much less. These days I'm more concerned about my cravings for food than for sex! I feel much freer and more responsible for my own life.