Masturbation and Mastering Self-Control: My Personal Struggle
How I wrestled with this overwhelming temptation.
A note to readers: This article deals with a sensitive – and important – topic. Reader discretion is advised.
I’m holding a calendar that has the number 240 written on November 7. 240 days without spilling seed. I never conceived this would ever be possible. When I started down this road, I didn’t plan to abstain from self-satisfaction for this long. I figured I’d cut back to maybe a couple times a month. I had no idea I would achieve this level of self-control.
I'll spare you all the details of the beginning of my journey (you can read all about it here: Judaism, Masturbation and Me). The main points are that I grew up with zero inclination that masturbating was “wrong,” and I did it... a lot. It only came at the suggestion of secular sources, like NoFap Reddit posts and the pick-up artist memoirs The Game, that maybe I should pull back.
In my late 20s I started to dabble in traditional Judaism and soon found myself on a trip to Israel. Due to the spiritual nature of the trip I decided to not masturbate the whole time. I noticed elevated confidence, energy, and connection with the opposite sex. But after a return to masturbating, this all went away.
I noticed elevated confidence, energy, and connection with the opposite sex. But after a return to masturbating, this all went away.
The benefits were undeniable, but getting back on track was never easy. During periods of certain Jewish holidays (the month of Elul leading up to the High Holidays, and the 49-day period of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot) I would challenge myself to get back on track, and to my amazement I was able to pull it off. But immediately after the holidays I’d find myself overcome with overwhelming desires.
This became my norm – struggling through most of the year to just go a few weeks of abstaining before falling to temptation, even with severe binge/purge like behaviors. I started charting my days on the calendar like an alcoholic (as the mantra goes: one day at a time). Sometimes I'd go for a month, feeling impervious, only to have the slightest thing set me off to indulgence.
I questioned if this was healthy. Despite what the Talmud said, was an adult male supposed to deprive himself completely of sexual satisfaction? Of course not. But the only Jewish answer is to get married, which I was trying to do, but that’s a whole other battle.
Since the more “sacred” I made those holiday times, the easier it was to keep from indulging, I started adding to them. I included the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av, Hanukkah, Rosh Chodesh and others. My mindset started to change. Instead of “I’m never supposed to masturbate,” it evolved into “These are times I’m definitely not going to masturbate.” And those periods became more and more prevalent in my calendar.
I’m not going to lie. I did start to strategize when it would be “okay” for me to fall off the wagon. But hey, that’s progress.
Then something interesting happened.
It was the 17th of Tammuz, the fast day that marks the sin of the golden calf, the breaking of the original Ten Commandment tablets, and the Roman siege of Jerusalem that happened a few hundred years later. So I’m fasting, lying in bed, not able to focus on anything, and I decided to listen to a Torah lecture. Lo and behold it’s about the transgression of spilling seed. The lecturer is a Sephardic Rabbi, and hey, I don’t want to make any stereotypes or cultural generalizations, but I assumed the Rabbi was going to go the fire and brimstone approach, shock and awe, unapologetic fear tactics, etc. He did a lot of that but then he mentioned that spiritually speaking, spilling seed was connected to depression and poverty.
That made me think. Okay, depression I had struggled with, but I was also a millennial – who wasn't depressed? And then I reflected on my financial struggles and noticed a strange phenomenon. I’d get a great freelance writing job. Then I’d start to stress out from said writing job. Indulging in my desires would then follow. Then almost out of nowhere, the project would lose funding, a producer would drop out, or a production company would go out of business (seriously, this did happen). I could almost set my watch to this cause/effect relationship.
There’s something very empowering about recognizing your own patterns. With this realization, I was imbued with a new purpose. I listened to the lecture again, jotting down all the exercises and tips it recommended, and I practiced them daily. Even though I didn’t believe the fire and brimstone warnings, I pretended I did. All of a sudden, I reached a self-awareness I never had before.
For the next three months I felt I was living on a whole other plane of existence.
Now, you may be highly skeptical of someone who claims they can control their thoughts so strictly. In fact, the 18th Century Chassidic Master the Baal Shem Tov was asked how someone can discern a true religious leader from a false one, and the Baal Shem Tov responded, “Ask him if he knows a way to prevent impure thoughts. If he says he does, he’s a charlatan.” (Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Wisdom p. 132). That being said, I reached a place where the moment an “impure thought” began to enter my consciousness, I was able to shut it out. For the next three months I felt I was living on a whole other plane of existence. My yetzer hara (evil inclination) was defeated and waiting patiently at the door, like a dog waiting to be let inside.
The Kabbala teaches that when God created the world, He introduced a light that was so holy that the vessels meant to contain it shattered. Despite my lack of understanding of this story, I felt an odd connection to the concept. You see, each time I went through one of these holiday seasons, it was like I was given a new light. Immediately after the time ended, the burning desire returned. Was it simply a passion to contain? Or was it a new light I was becoming increasingly able to hold on to? It very quickly became too much to hold and I’d shatter. But with each new season, my vessel (my soul? my body? my willpower?) was getting reforged, a little stronger each time.
This was major achievement, but it wasn't when I made it to the 240-day milestone. I got knocked off my pedestal shortly after Sukkot. But at this point I felt I had turned a corner. Yes, there would be days of overwhelming temptation, but the indulgences weren’t binges followed by purges. I could even sit with the desire and try to redirect it. This meditation worked for other vices as well.
Over the following year I managed to only fall off nine times. That’s only because I kept count using my fingers and if I could get to Passover with needing to count that last finger, I knew something big would happen. That’s when the 240-count started.
We’ve all been told that whatever we’re striving for or struggling with, to keep at it. To never give up. That every little attempt makes a difference. Breakthroughs do happen. Believe me, I’m no one special. It just takes being honest with yourself, continuing to seek out new strategies and perspectives, and a whole lot of persistence. One last point, over those 240 days is when I met my wife. But that’s a whole other story.
Some Key Tactics
Dedicate a day to come back.
For me I started by not indulging on Shabbat no matter what. Down the road it became a restart to whatever I had done during the week.
Focus on accomplishments, not failures.
Even struggling for 5 extra minutes is a big deal. It also strengthens your resistance muscle.
Progress is a trend, not a straight line.
It may seem like you’re not making progress, even that you’re back sliding. But remember to look at the big picture.
Keep a written record.
Anyone who is serious about anything keeps a record. It can be a journal, a calendar, even a note on the wall. In addition to charging progress, it keeps your intellectual mind in the game, which can pull you out an emotional pitfall.
One Step at a Time
Remember we’re here to grow and approach perfection, even if we never get there. Even if you’ve only managed to indulge a few times less than before, that’s something to be proud of. Keep it up.