In Solo Episode 150: Looking Forward, Backward, and Inward, Peter McGraw talks about how he is experimenting with abstinence or sexual fasting—with an ambitious goal of “controlling the uncontrollable” in order to focus his attention and energy on other endeavors besides sex and dating. In this episode, Peter welcomes Nick Mennell, who lives a remarkable life in a chronic state of abstinence, to discuss this practice more deeply.
Listen to Episode #164 here
In Episode 150: Looking Forward, Backward, And Inward, I talked about how I’m experimenting with abstinence, or as I call it, sexual fasting, with an ambitious goal of controlling the uncontrollable to focus my attention and energy on other endeavors besides sex and dating. After that episode, a reader posted in the Solo community, which you can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo.
She wrote, “I appreciate your vulnerable share about feeling your sex drive is sometimes driving you and not the other way around. I relate. The only difference is people expect this from men but not from women. I don’t think I would be that interested in dating if it weren’t for my sex drive. For me, the hardest part about being single is the lack of regular good sex. I’m well aware that this problem is not exclusive to single people.”
“Not all single people share this problem. Most of my emotional fulfillment comes from other relationships like work, family, and friends, but I have sexual yearnings that are only met through non-platonic connections. It’s a catch-22 because dating is exhausting and distracting, and the payoff is often not there, but so is being horny all the time.”
“It’s also not something casual sex can fix for me, personally. I presume that would be easy enough to find. By payoff, I mean someone I connect with that I like being around, trust, and want to have sex with. Maybe it is because I’m in the South, but most people/men, I only date men, so that is all I can speak to, seem to have a hard time with the fact that there is such a large gray area between casual sex and riding the escalator.” I thank her for her vulnerable share.
In this episode, I welcome Nick Mennell, whom I referenced in episode 150, to dive more deeply into this issue. A graduate of Juilliard and a former actor, Nick is now teaching people mindfulness and meditation. He lives a remarkable life in a chronic state of abstinence, and I think you can benefit from his perspective. As the reader notes, there are many perspectives on the topic of sex and abstaining from it. Nick and I are straight men, and I recognize that our conversation about abstinence has limitations. Nonetheless, I hope it inspires reflection and conversations in your own life. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Thank you. It is good to be here.
We are sitting in the living room of a dear mutual friend.
The one that introduced us.
Darwyn Metzger and a previous guest in the I Love You, Man episode. I have a feeling this episode will have a similar vibe. The soul of the show has two elements, destigmatizing and celebrating single living and helping solos live remarkably. We are going to be addressing the latter here. We met through a mutual friend. You and I have been having, for several years now, compelling private conversations about this topic. I want to have a public one. It is one that I teased in episode 150, where I talked about this notion of sexual fasting. Let’s start with a premise for the episode, and maybe it is not controversial, but there is value in abstinence.
The first thought that occurred to me as you did the intro there is this idea of destigmatizing solo living, what the value in that is and/or what the value is in destigmatizing anything. That is where the root of these experiences or learnings have come for me, which is we have these internal and external drivers that drive us to a default way of thinking, being, and feeling that doesn’t always serve us at the highest level.
One of the virtues of getting to be us, you and me, and modern human beings is the ability to look underneath the hood, shift and change, and be aware of who I am. One of the reasons I imagine you have wanted to and would want to destigmatize the concept of solo living is because so many people end up in a default way of being in that based on social pressures and default ways of believing how they should be, how it should look, or how relationships should exist. That is why I think you and I agree many people have ended up in long-term committed relationships that ultimately haven’t served their highest self.
That is what you do, and this is when you do it. You are suddenly scrapping, working, and making this thing happen, even if it is not the right fit or time.
I hope it is not too tangential, but in the work that I teach around the world, and this is a piece of it, we talk about these neural networks in the brain that get mapped conditionally to our concept of who we are and the relationship of who we are to people, places, things, and time. That physiological network of neurons that is fired and wired is the identity of the self. To transcend that is to die to an old self and commit to a new self. Sometimes that happens in easy, simple, and comfortable ways. Sometimes that happens in scary and uncomfortable ways.
Sometimes you have to dedicate several years of your life to a show to get there.
When you introduced the concept of what you were devoted to doing, that is what I saw in it. I saw not only your own devotion and dedication to pushing beyond the known into the unknown for yourself. You had determined at some point, as I did, as well as one of the things we have in common. The comfort of the known had shown up dysfunctionally in the past, either through our parents or experiences. The unknown was a better option, or at least it was worth exploring.
I will speak for myself in that case. I had come from such a dysfunctional childhood as a result of two people, my father in particular, who I most identify with, being a male who felt that he needed to do a certain thing and be a certain thing. He tried to commit to that path until it broke him. The family that he created within it is based on dishonesty, not dishonesty that was out of integrity, though it led to that. It is dishonesty to the self. It was denying the self for the sake of a social concept. When we betray ourselves like that for too long, it self-destructs in some way, shape, or form.
I will tell you my personal story. My parents divorced when I was nine, and my father was largely absent because my mom forced that absence on him and us. When I went off to college, I reached out to him. As an eighteen-year-old, I wanted to find out who my father was. I wanted to get to know him. I visited him down in Maryland. Unfortunately, it wasn’t like in the movies. He is this interesting man. We suddenly bond again, and I have a chance to reignite this connection. If anything, he was a peaceful, sensitive, and broken man.
I remember distinctly asking him because I could see how the match with my mom wasn’t a good one. It looked good on paper. They were tall and attractive. They looked good in the photo. They met at a military and army dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. My dad had been enlisted when Vietnam was happening. I said, “Why did you get married? Why did you do this?” He said, “It was Vietnam, and that is what you did. It was not deep thinking.” He was a little older, and she was a little older. Time was ticking.
Mine was similar. I’m sure there are people reading this who can relate to the same. It is a generational thing. I have been listening to this audiobook called The Fourth Turning. It is an amazing book, talking about how generationally there are these shifts, but they are consistent. They have been consistent for thousands of years. That generation was the children of people that had come out of a difficult time in the world, the great depression and World War II. They were told that the world should look and be a certain way.
As a result of that great chaos, fear and destruction, you would imagine parents of that generation would want to overprotect their children and make sure they lived within a certain structure because that structure would potentially provide more safety. You see how these things get passed on from generation to generation. It also gets transcended through the generations because they stop working. In many cases, they didn’t work for long enough, or they don’t work for long enough that we want to break through it.
I have been doing a deep dive into this stuff. The nuclear family is a relatively recent invention. It is not terribly agreeable to being human. It is isolating, risky, especially for children, and over-prescribed. In 1960, 90% of adults got married and did so on average by age 21. Everything I know about human development and the diversity of people’s interests and needs suggests that the number is too high. The particular type of relationship is also too widely prescribed. Our parents were trying to do that because they were living in the vestiges of that 800-pound gorilla of relationships.
This is important, and you will tell me if we get too tangential.
We are, but it is worth it. It is a good setup because it is going to set up what I think of as we have these two elements driving us. We have a biological and evolutionary one. For example, this tendency to pair bond, especially to have children and the cultural learning, what I often refer to on the show as fiction, our ability to understand, accept and follow social rules that create a particular style of pair bonding. What we have been dancing around is the fact that if you can become elevated enough, you can recognize the biological drives. You can undo the social constraints, perhaps to create a more remarkable life.
It recognizes biological drives, psychological drives, and social drives. Creating choice is what it is all about. I will bring it back around, but it is important to consider the history of all of this. You got millions of years of evolution that have created our biological experience and drivers. In that, you had the agricultural revolution. All of a sudden, people started to take ownership of those things, people, things, and places. As soon as we started to take ownership of those things, I think we started to move away from the natural order. I don’t think that in and of itself was bad or wrong. That was part of the path of creating more structure in chaos, which is what life bends towards.
It creates different problems. We solve a whole bunch of problems. Agriculture solves problems, and it creates a whole bunch of other problems.
Most people don’t realize that is where the entire dynamic of marriage started, as I know, you know, the modern one at least. People were getting married before that, but most people don’t even know the history behind the modern concept, this exchange of a ring, which is ironic. I hope I don’t offend any of your female readers, but in my experience, typically, it is the woman who wants, excited, and desires the ring. That ring was initially a symbol of property possession
What you are about to get to is what solos are doing, some of them, either temporarily or permanently, abstain from this culturally driven relationship in order to open up possibilities that work better for them and are likely to help them thrive.
We are masters of our own fate and will and continually optimize around that will, which is what we call evolution. We are evolving and growing or slaves to these unconscious or subconscious beliefs and mechanisms. That is the premise here.
That is a long lead-up and a worthwhile one.
This is actually how our conversations used to be.
As I pitched the beginning of this episode, I pitched it as there are these two things that I try to do, and we are going to do the other one. What you are suggesting is that both are happening here. To destigmatize single living is to embrace breaking a rule, recognizing your drives, and recognizing your influences.
It is looking at, questioning, and overcoming a belief.
When it comes to the types of things that people decide to abstain from, it has a similar profile to the relationship escalator, as I call it. I have never met anyone like you, Nick, and I say that in the most complimentary way.
Thank you. I have never met anyone like you, either. I would say it in the same way.
I’m going to try to articulate it, and you can correct me. Your premise is to make a decision to forego experiences. It is an act that opens up other non-obvious possibilities, creates growth, asserts your ability to make choices, and creates some control in a life that has a lot of forces acting upon you that feel uncontrollable.
I would put it as to abstain from default thinking from default behaviors, from even default emotional experiences to create enough space to allow for choice. There is a step before that, which is one has to observe and become aware there are defaults in thinking, doing, and feeling. The first piece is opening up awareness. That is the great gift of the neocortex and funnel lobe that we have developed that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom that we know of. It is our ability to observe the self and choose. This whole conversation is leading up to the main dynamic in which I chose to discover this, or I experienced breakthroughs around sex and sexuality. It is the greatest driver, if not at least one of the greatest human drivers.
This notion of abstinence, I feel like there is a better word. I don’t have it yet. This idea of number one, recognizing the defaults, and number two, making a conscious choice to opt-in or opt out of those defaults is something that you have been doing for how long?
I’m writing a book on it, which you played a large role in motivating me to get going.
Random texts, “Are you writing now?”
It is coming along well. When I started to explore that question, I realized, “I have actually been practicing this my whole life, and all of us have.” Conscientiously, it started around the time that I lost my virginity, around nineteen years old, and concertedly, when I was 20 or 21. I remember making a practice of it.
I have to pause as I reflect on me at 21. First of all, no one wanted to have sex with me. I didn’t have to make any choices about abstinence. The fact that I would even consider it and reflect on it at that age suggests there was something different about you. I say that in a complimentary way.
I appreciate it. To be honest, there wasn’t that much special about it. There was nothing certainly heroic about it. It was a lot of pain. The pain was the driver, as it is for most change. The pain was the result of finding myself in these default relationships, even at an early age, that were repetitions and echoes of my earliest and most important female relationship, which would have been my mother.
As a little background, my dad left when I was about 10 or 11, and my mom spiraled big time. The living conditions with her without getting too much into it were difficult and challenging, as challenging as one could imagine. A lot of pain developed. As often happens in those situations, I would unconsciously find female partners who would repeat that pain cycle because whether it is conscious or unconscious, the known is comfortable and safe. What we know is we tend to want to stay within consciously or unconsciously, even if the known is dysfunctional and painful.
It is unconsciously better usually than the unknown. The greatest unknown is death. That is what we are trying to avoid. We are trying to create consciously and unconsciously as much certainty as possible. We recreate and reattract these patterns in our lives. At least, that is my best understanding of it. That is what was happening. It was that, and a combination of admiring priests and monks at a young age, and what seemed to be their incredible commitment to something other than. I grew up Roman Catholic, and so many of those guys are celebrated as heroes.
This was pre-spotlight.
If it weren’t for that, I might have become one. I might have become a priest or a monk at a young age, but because of that and my own experiences through, and with that, I realized there had to be something else. It was recreating a pain cycle for myself and others I didn’t feel good about. Our feelings are the indicators at the end of the day. It is binary, as is duality.
The thinking within psychology is that our emotions feed our learning. They help us learn. When we do something and experience positive emotions, we know to do it again. When we do something and experience negative emotions, we know to be careful doing it again. Our emotions guide our future choices.
What is interesting about that is there is a paradox, which is that there are short-term emotions and long-term emotions. There is a feel-good right now. There is don’t feel good later. That was the cycle.
For anybody who has a nightcap and wakes up the next day with a hangover, it is that feeling at the moment versus the feeling the next day.
Choosing to skip the gym for Netflix or eating the extra donut. That was an incredible adversity. As I believe all adversity calls us, transcendence calls us the growth that one did for me. At that early age, I realized this default way of being this default driver. This thing was embedded inside of me. That felt good as a driver and an accomplishment in the short term. In the long-term, it was showing up as something incredibly destructive.
Falling in love is fun. Sex feels great. Putting those two together is an incredible cocktail.
Not only that, but so much of what we witness around us is a result of that, productivity-wise. I can’t remember the author of whatever book it was. I can’t remember which book it is because I have read a number of them that have been wonderful on human sexuality, but one of them stated, “Everything that you see is created by man as a result of human sexuality.” The guy that is driven to build this apartment complex or that Christmas tree, all of it was driven because power was desired, which was desired simply to find the best mate.
It takes up a lot of space. I had a conversation where I reflected on my achievements in life. I said, “They came from three places. The first one is me fleeing poverty. I wanted to accomplish, create a career and safety. I wouldn’t have the financial and housing insecurity I had as a young person. The second one is my natural curiosity, ambitions, and desire to live a rich life. The third one is to meet girls and be appealed to in a way I wasn’t when I was young.”
Can you separate your desire for a rich life from your desire to be with women?
Those were different things for you.
For me, they can because there were things that I have done that didn’t necessarily feed my ability to connect with women. There were times when I pushed women away from me because I was enamored.
Actually, there were a lot of those times.
I’m enamored with this project, idea, and hair, but it is a big driver in this sense. It is a big enough driver that it can get in the way. That is where we are headed.
What I was trying to get to is that it also inspired me. I started my early life as an artist of sorts. I started as a Broadway film and TV actor. I wrote a lot of poetry. A lot of that was driven by the romantic in me. It was deeply rooted in this integrated, romantic sexual dynamic. This ended up becoming quite interesting later on when through years of abstinence. I didn’t abstain for years on end, but I would abstain for long periods, go back, abstain again, and go back. I would partake in this dance to try to find what was the ideal way of being for myself. I’m not saying this for anybody else but for myself. What I would find in the long periods of abstinence is I would lose all that stuff.
What do you mean you would lose what?
I would lose the drive to write poetry. I would lose the drive even to succeed. I lost a lot of vital drivers. I removed this biological imperative that was driving a lot of it. Neurons that fire and wire together. Neurons that fire apart wire apart. If you don’t use it, you will lose it. There is some truth to that. I thought, “This is wild.” Here is this thing I thought I had developed a noble notion around that I had moved in a different direction. I saw most of my male peers driven in, yet there was a form of loss on the other side, which is I lost the motivation to succeed and creativity. That was an interesting part of that.
I want to make two comments. One is I talked about that cocktail of love and sex. There is a third part that often goes unstated. That is, this person is going to solve my problems. This person is going to make me a better person.
At least feel like a better person. We are biologically and neurologically wired to feel that way.
That adds to the motivation, excitement, and wanting to be able to find it. The second one is a story that I have told on the show before. What are the drivers of success? Ambition, creativity, scholarship, art, business, entrepreneurship, and community involvement. The things that we strive for that are challenging.
I remember using anger as a young man, the angry young man. I will show them. They don’t believe in me as a motivator to achieve, and anger works. I was working with my therapist. He suggested that I don’t need the anger to do it. I have achieved and could continue doing it without introducing this negative emotion into my life.
I remember him suggesting this, and I broke down. I started crying because I was scared to let it go. I was scared I was going to lose my edge and motivation. I remember asking him. I said, “If I’m not going to use anger, what do I use?” He said, “This wise man said to me, you do it because you want to do it.” Hearing you talk about detaching yourself from these drives. It leads to creativity and focus. I could see how it would be scary to let it go because you don’t want to lose your creative side and ability to make art.
You gave such a beautiful example of what I’m talking about here. I started early in our conversation by talking about default thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. In your case, that was a default feeling. That was a driver. What this therapist did for you is open awareness. He unlocked a key of awareness for you, which I said was the first step. It allowed you to observe the thing and choose. When he says it to you, you do it because you want to. That is the choice I’m pointing at. We create choice by and through observation first and abstaining from the default way of being, thinking, and doing. The choice is the thing. That is freedom.
I have a previous episode on optionality. My guest talks about the importance of optionality, even if you don’t exercise it. What he talks about is we have a whole bunch of small choices in the world. This is a thing that tricks us. You go to the supermarket, and you have thousands of choices, but that is not important optionality. The important optionality is to be able to make big choices, even if you don’t make them. That is freedom. What we are talking about are big things to recognize the defaults with regard to Zach’s relationships, drugs work, and a variety of behaviors.
Even driving to see you, as I’m reflecting on some of the individuals I pass, we have an income disparity in a homeless crisis here in LA. The difference between the lower and higher end of that spectrum is choice. The ability to choose. The people that make it out of there are the ones that develop the ability to keep choosing rights or to at least keep choosing and, through choosing new choices, selecting enough right choices that we succeed. The ones that don’t are the ones that fall victim to default ways of thinking, feeling, and being. That is at the root of a lot of this.
Let’s get back into the sex. Before we do that, when people think of abstinence, they typically think of alcohol. No, maybe not.
What are you trying to tell us, Peter?
We had alcohol problems in my family. Maybe that is why I think about it that way.
You actually helped me in an early conversation find the word. Maybe it is not the right word. Perhaps it was a better one. Originally, I would talk about it in terms of celibacy because it was more associated with sex and sexuality, but it also has its own connotation, which is the idea of abstaining completely from sex. I have also done this, but that is not what this was about for me. It was about exploring the sweet spot.
Talk about that.
What I found is that when I first observed this default desire and abstained from it, sometimes it was a few seconds. Sometimes, it was long periods of time but abstain from it long enough to create a real choice. Do I think this is going to serve or not serve? Through that, I was able to create a choice. By choosing something different, I was able to open up the possibility. In that, all of a sudden, it is not binary anymore. There is an infinite number of possibilities that exist at that moment between choosing to or choosing not to.
What is an example of this? You are talking about, early on, you are a young man. You recognize this pattern. You said, “Even delaying.” What is happening?
The most important thing that has happened now historically is, like any young man, and I’m single now, I still go through this, there is the initial response to an attractive woman, but I’m responding to limited factors of who this individual actually is.
It is books and covers.
A great test of this has been social media. It has been a great test and gift. I haven’t done any dating apps and dated off of social media, but I have found it interesting. There have been women who I have come across first on social media that have been wowed by. This is a fractal, microcosmic example of the practice in reality. I had either been wowed by them on social media or, even more interestingly, I would meet them in person, and there may be some attraction, maybe even not.
They connect with social media. Enough time would go by, and I would forget my initial interaction, but I would be seeing them on social media and seeing their best Photoshop version of themself. I’m like, “This person is attractive. I should call them back into my world.” I would start down that default fantasy path of desire.
It is a fantasy and an illusion of desire. That is one important thing. It disrupts the romantic notion of it, but it is always an illusion of desire. What we understand now, and many neuroscientists agree, is that this entire objective reality is a shared hallucination. All of it is an illusion. Sexual desire is perhaps the greatest of them all.
There is a term that got invented for this, and it captures this idea. It is called a thirst trap.
Let’s break that down for a second. I like to look at these things, and I haven’t looked at that enough.
Being thirsty is one of the most motivating things that you can experience. It is more motivating than hunger. It is more motivating than sex.
Why are you so thirsty? I wasn’t too thirsty.
The idea of being a trap is what goes into a trap. A bear trap or mouse trap is this thing that gets you into a position you don’t want to be in.
What is great about that metaphor is you think about being in the desert, seeing an illusion of water and how that would build thirst. You drive towards this illusion of water. That is the same thing. What is interesting about it is that these dynamics create that proverbial thirst where it wasn’t there before. You weren’t in desire of water at all prior to the things. That activates it.
I want to editorialize for a moment here because we are two straight men talking about sex. I have lots of non-men and non-straight readers. What we are talking about is a specific case of a more general phenomenon. It may be difficult to identify what we are talking about in the specifics of being attracted to and wanting to have sex. There are people who are asexual and people who don’t have any trouble finding sex if they want it. You can apply these same principles to a romantic connection to other things that drive us to connect to other types of behaviors.
I had a conversation with a close friend who was dating a guy, and they became friends. They have been having lots of spirited conversations about heteronormative dating. He alleges that what women don’t understand about men is that they are 100 times more motivated by sex than women assume. In psychology, we call this an empathy gap. I want to say that because someone may be reading this and can’t identify with this set of motivations.
It is an important point. I usually steer away from male-female stereotypes or generalities. I talk more about masculine versus feminine. All of us are composed of both. This is a particular masculine driver. Women can have this masculine driver and be on this side.
On rare occasions, I wear a tuxedo. I might create a thirst trap.
I thought you were going to tell me, on rare occasions, you wear a dress. Just because we might have been a majority of our life on one side of this equation, it doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced both sides. We know what it is like to desire and to be desired.
I wanted to say that because I don’t want someone to feel like this is not relevant to them because of your specific story.
This is relative to every human being, to all of us, the concept and the notion of default behavior. They say that up to 95% of who we are, by the time we are 35, sub-unconscious, automated thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, and actions.
I want to go back. I asked you about this notion of, I’m using the word pausing, but you might have a different term for it. You noticed the default. What did you do?
I noticed the default, which was not serving. I started to stop what I would default to. Was that easy? Was that simple?
What would that look like?
As an example, I was a young twenty years old, working at a bar in New York City. You can imagine what that looks like.
For the readers, Nick is tall, handsome, and fit.
Thank you. I appreciate that. At that young age, working behind a bar in New York City, with high testosterone, it was the late ‘90s and early 2000s. It was an exciting time in the city. There was an abundance of beautiful women. In that environment, people are seeking some encounters.
They call it a meat market for a reason.
I never thought about it that way. The easy default thing to do, which everybody was defaulting towards, was to meet somebody. You could meet somebody every night, end up going home with them or them with you, hooking up and having this casual encounter. There were a lot of neurochemical and biological reasons to do that. When I did enough of those things to make it obvious that it wasn’t serving, I stopped doing them. It was that simple. I would have the same desire. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy. It is simple, but it is not easy.
I have to point out the obvious, which is when you say, “No, thank you.” This is not a response that people like to hear.
We are going to get to that. This is why I’m writing the book because the practice of it is incredible in what it opens up in terms of possibility.
You are like, “I’m going home and going to bed. Thank you very much.”
The point that you made earlier is that all of us have these masculine and feminine dynamics. Women have the desire to experience that masculine dynamic within them. A lot of men have the desire to explore certain feminine dynamics. When I say feminine dynamics, I’m not talking about wearing an apron or playing with dolls. I’m talking about nurturing another creature. It is a typical feminine dynamic.
That was the practice. When I did that, I noticed that I would open up a little more space and time. In some cases, rather than going home with her on the first night, I would wait a few days. I would go home with her, and that shifted the dynamic alone. Sometimes it didn’t shift enough. I would extend that period of time and wait more time.
I found that there were a couple of interesting things that were happening, which was the person I was attracted to in that initial encounter. The attraction would start to shift. It wasn’t consistent. This person that I felt that I had to have this encounter with, and if I paused and waited a little bit, often I would see more dimensions of who that person was. Sometimes worse, sometimes better. I don’t even know if I want to say worse. It was more dimensions that changed the level of my attraction.
Sometimes, my attraction would completely fade. In those cases, it was quite obvious what the outcome would have been had I engaged with this individual. What I found is that a lot of these encounters were driven by default behavior on both sides. As I was driven sub-unconsciously to recreate my own pain cycle, I encountered women who were sub-unconsciously driven to create their own pain cycles. It was a great match to create unpleasant experiences.
Sex has a bonding element to it. It can override other considerations for people. I’m a scientist. I would collect more data.
This is important to consider these neurological chemicals, in particular, and oxytocin is an example. They have done a lot of studies. We won’t get into them because we will go on a tangent. I recommend you Google the studies around oxytocin. Oxytocin is released in that experience. It can have you become attracted to something that initially you are not even attracted to by exposure to the neurochemical oxytocin.
I will give you an example of this. George Loewenstein and Dan Ariely have this controversial paper, but when I read it, it was one of those papers where I was like, “Yes, of course.” In it, they have college-age men either put themselves in a sexually aroused state or not. They did it through pornography. They were asked a series of questions related to risk-taking behaviors and preferences related to sex. When these men were in this sexually aroused state, they were much more risk-taking and open to different ideas. Their decision-making was compromised in this state, and in many ways, not in positive ways.
Dopamine is another huge neurochemical. They have done countless studies on how that drives us to partake in behaviors that may not be constructive to attain the neurochemical experience. There are plenty of these examples. You reminded me of one of the many valuable experiences I have had on this journey. Initially, I was wired by these neurochemicals to this default way of being. As I started to observe and create a pause, what I was wired to be attracted to change. I was attracted to what you would imagine most young men were attracted to.
The default standard of beauty.
It is as easy as that, Victoria’s Secret model body individual person. As I started to practice this, and I was lucky, having lived in these cities, New York and LA, to be surrounded by women that look that way, I started to notice that in abstaining, they would shift, even the ones that on the surface looked that way. Sometimes they would open up their mouth, and that alone would shift how they appeared to me. It would shift my own attraction to them, which everybody has experienced.
The more I created pause and distance, the more I became aware I was shifting that natural dopamine response from being triggered by a person who looked a certain way to a person who was a certain way. When it changed, I went from being the young man that would stop and drop everything I was doing if I was in a grocery store or walking down the street and saw a gorgeous girl walking by to being a young man who knew that gorgeous girl, on some level, I might not be attractive. To respond instead to people that had other things going on, either intelligent, extremely empathetic and/or nurturing contributors. That neurological and biological imperative started to shift and change.
That was one important thing. Even when I was looking at the images that used to inspire that, I started looking at the images that used to alone trigger those neurochemical responses. They stop triggering those neurochemical responses because it is only a repeated relationship to something that will keep that neurological response going. If you stop the repetition of that experience, you open space for a new neurological response. That whole thing would shift. I will put it simply because I’m maybe talking a little theoretically. Opening up a Victoria’s Secret magazine or Playboy had one response in my late early twenties.
It is, especially if you are a man and you are masturbating to it.
This is an important point because, in this situation that you are talking about, which most masculine straight men, you are rewarding yourself for not only objectifying to an image that is an object of desire, but you are repetitively doing. You are enriching the circuitry of your brain to respond in that way. You are also wiring yourself to do without commitment or need to extend efforts. You are wiring your mind and body to receive as you would in eating the donut. You are now wiring yourself to receive this huge caloric intake and a burst of pleasantness in an easy way that does not, may not, and will not benefit you.
I want to do a callback to my friend Sarah Stinson. She was on the Valuing Yourself episode. She has a friend, who puts it this way, Nick. She says, “Just because you are hungry doesn’t mean you should eat a Hot Pocket.”
This is why I say you can apply this practice of abstinence to everything. I haven’t eaten. I don’t plan to eat until 4:00. That used to be an experience that would create anxiety and uncertainty because I was taught that I was supposed to have breakfast and lunch. I was supposed to eat in a certain way. Exposure to new information and practice is good for abstaining from eating and intermittent fasting. That became a pleasant thing. The unpleasant thing suddenly became pleasant. Yeah. It is now pleasant to feel hunger because I have associated hunger experientially and through a thought practice as a positive thing. The same can be applied. This is good for my body.
With the same feeling of hunger that used to drive me to be frustrated and anxious and eat the hot pocket of pop tar, now that feeling resides in me and creates a pleasant response and experience. It is the same way that an old me might have been stimulated by pornography or Playboy. In shifting away from that, that became repulsive in many ways. Something else took its place, which was ultimately more rewarding in the long term. Anybody who has quit sugar for two weeks understands this experience, where the drive goes away. It shifts. If you quit something like that for two weeks, all of a sudden, you look at it differently. It doesn’t have the same calling it once did.
This is an apt moment to pause. What you are describing is shocking to me. It is advanced and elevated because I’m only now getting to where you were several years ago, and I’m 52 years old in 2023. I have been using a fasting metaphor to describe this. I have been calling it sexual fasting. Aside from talking to you, I have poked around the internet, and there is a dearth of information. There is some weird stuff out there on semen retention, which is not rooted in science.
The motivation is fine. I don’t think the execution is good. There is this phenomenon of what is called monk mode that people talk about where they got to work on a project. They want to make a change in their life, and they go into monk mode. I have embraced this idea of fasting because I have started an intermittent fast. It is not as aggressive as yours.
I don’t generally eat past 7:00 PM. I usually don’t have my first meal until 10:00 or 11:00. It is not a big window, but it is a bigger window of non-eating than I used to have. It was aversive at first, and now I find it to be useful. I won’t call it pleasant. I will call it useful. As I was contemplating, and I call it controlling the uncontrollable, that is my tentative title for this episode, or I could call it abstinence. I noticed how my sexual drives were getting in the way of other endeavors. They were distracting. They were taking time and energy.
What made you aware of this?
The initial thing was the negative emotions because I like dating. I date casually. I date with an openness to a more long-term romantic relationship. I enjoy it. I’m good at it. I’m having success within it in a way I hadn’t as a young man. I’m enjoying it. That creates this additional incentive, and you lean into it.
There is enough bad behavior out there and enough unpleasantness that makes me go, “Is it worth it?” I had an episode of getting stood up that was upsetting to me, the way I was treated in this situation. I’m getting ghosted and having people be rude to you. That is what started me going, “Why am I working hard on this when it has the potential to create such unpleasantness in my life?”
Is there a net positive or negative? Is it neutral?
The issue is it is not the net. The positive and negative are high.
That is what I mean about the neutral. There is a huge upside, and there has also been a huge negative side. People will often continue to drive because there is some experience of neutrality.
It balances out, but to put on my behavioral scientist hat, there is this thing called negativity dominance. That negative affects us much more than positives do. They capture our attention and emotions. They motivate change. Anybody who knows Charles Bukowski, the man is an alcoholic and a womanizer, but he has this incredible story as a writer. He went from working in the post office to becoming a world-renowned writer. He has this quote, “Any a****** can chase a skirt. Art takes discipline.”
Even Charles Bukowski, who has his share of failings and is a victim to these drives, recognizes what I call the opportunity costs of these endeavors of defaulting into the pursuit of sex, romance, and connection, especially the speedy pursuit of it, which is it gets in the way of other things that are important.
I don’t know if he was drawing the direct relationship between art and sexuality, but as you were talking, what was interesting to me is I was thinking about how much time we spend perfecting other dynamics. How much time might one spend in a kitchen perfecting the amount of salt that goes into a recipe? For me, it was another version of this.
I still don’t promote celibacy as an answer. I don’t promote any specific practice of absence as an answer. What I’m promoting here is taking enough time to observe, to create awareness, and having enough discipline to create some pause, as you say, a little bit of space, some abstinence between yourself, and default ways of thinking, feeling, and being. You can create a choice, and there is an art in in doing that. You open up possibilities because you are no longer doing something by default. You are creating a choice, which opens up possibilities. The chances that a possibility exists within that and that it is better than what you were doing before are extremely high. Why wouldn’t we do it?
As you are saying this, the sun has shifted, and this beam of light is on you. I feel like there is a force in the world that wants to highlight that idea.
Do I look enlightened?
Yes, thank you. The thing about living in a world of abundance that we live in is when you are hungry, you don’t have to panic. You are going to be able to eat a nourishing meal when you decide to do it. You don’t have to take whatever is put in front of you there. You don’t have to drop everything. I have enjoyed using this sexual fasting metaphor because what it allows me to say is at the same time that I won’t eat at 8:00 AM. I am not going to drop everything because I have a sexual urge.
What might that look like? That might look like texting someone something flirty, asking someone out on a date, opening up a dating app, or masturbating. These are all action-related coping mechanisms by which to solve this problem, which is this motivation. What I have been doing, and you will be proud of me, Nick, is I have allowed myself to meditate on it, to recognize how I’m feeling, and to say, “I’m going to let this sit. I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to let it be.” Do you know what ends up happening? It goes away. It passes.
What are some of the benefits you feel that you have experienced from that?
What I like about this is I feel I have control over this thing that, for so much of my life, felt uncontrollable. It felt outside of my locus of control.
It creates choices. You don’t feel you are in control of something. You feel that you are a slave to it.
I don’t have to rely on someone else for my happiness, which has someone agreeing to go on a date with me, see with me, like me on an app, or respond to my text message that is there. It feels empowering not to default to this behavior, masturbation. I’m becoming more woo-woo as I go, but I feel like I can channel that energy into other endeavors that matter. Those might be creative endeavors, The Solo Project. They might be friendships. When I spend time with a friend, I have this energy that I haven’t given up. Even things like exercise feeds my body and soul.
Let me tell you the irony of this all. As you were talking there, I was trying to remember the name of this book by Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People.
That is his famous one.
He talks about transmuting sexual energy.
I have read that book. I don’t remember that.
The truth is that where our focus goes, our energy does flow. A lot of my mentors say that. There is a truth to it, where my focus goes, my energy flows. As Tony Robbins says, “That is what will end up growing in our life.” Think about the truth of that. The irony is that what is it that we desire to begin with? It is an important question to contemplate. What is the thing that I desire? What am I looking for? What do I want? I want companionship. Do I want adventure? Do I want that dopamine fix? What is it that I want?
What I have found to be true is that the driver works against itself for that end experience. I’m going to rewind that back one time. That driver works against what he is driving for. One of the greatest things I experienced is being more successful and creating more to a degree. At some point through this journey of absence or celibacy, the driver went off. That is the sweet spot I’m talking about. Not only was I able to focus more on this energy, but one of the most important things is I started showing up differently to women. They started showing up differently to me.
In our private conversations, you have talked about this and how it changes the dynamic between you and someone you are attracted to because of the pause. You become a different person. It allows them to be a different person. They were trained by Mr. Miyagi. They know how to paint the fence and wax on and wax off. How to counter and ferry all this incoming attention they are getting from men, often. It doesn’t matter who is to be able to suss out. Is this someone who is worth my attention and time? You are not pursuing in that way. I know this of you. You have this genuine, thoughtful, curious, open approach to meeting people. What happens is that it carries into a world where you are not trying to impress, flirt, and achieve this thing that is the default.
First of all, I have developed countless amazing friendships with women and don’t need to be anything other than that. Beautiful women that are incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, filled with mutual nurture, mutual care, and interesting conversation. That is one benefit, whereas many of those women would have been shipped in the night if I had stayed in that default way of being. If history had anything to say about it, they would have left with an unpleasant memory of me and vice versa. Not only did it create that and open up space for that, but the other irony is what happens to a guy, you tell me, Peter, who has countless beautiful girlfriends?
They have friends.
Even beyond the friends, when any woman sees you with countless beautiful girlfriends, it shifts their perspectives.
They say, “He is one of the good ones.”
It is not even a conscious thing. You brought up an important point, which is those beautiful people, in particular, were wired from a young age as objects of desire and as praise of pursuit. That is their neurological network that is fired and wired. That is what they are used to, which is going to set them into default behavior. Their default behavior is not going to align well with your default behavior if you are a pursuer of prey and a desirer of objects.
This idea of pursuit, prey, and traps is funny how this characterizes these interactions.
How it plays itself out is I show up at that grocery store. I’m in Whole Foods, and I see an attractive woman.
She is trying to live her life.
They don’t think, but if they did for a second, you think you are the first guy that is wanted to go up and ask for a phone number at Whole Foods. How many times has this happened to this individual, which sets her again into a default way of being? I’m not saying you don’t get her phone number. I’m saying observe and abstain from the default behavior. That might mean saying hello, not getting her phone number, and waiting to see if she carries the conversation. Maybe you run into her again, or you don’t. Maybe you don’t say anything, and you observe and abstain.
You notice how you are motivated, how your default way of being is, and your default way of being is going to trigger her default way of being. It is a zero-sum game. It often does not benefit either one of you. Do the opposite. Show up to a bar or a nightclub, have an interaction with a beautiful woman, remove that default way of thinking, which is got to get her number, get her in bed, wondering what she looks like naked and show up with and to her as somebody genuinely interested about her experience and life.
They are unconscious, so they are things we feel. They are not things we think. In other words, she can feel when she is being pursued or someone is trying to manipulate her for her phone number and/or for a good time. She can feel it, and you feel it also. If you start to observe it long enough, you start to feel driven and being driven to manipulate somebody or pretend this is one thing the masculine gets caught up in a lot, and the feminine does as well, but particularly masculine.
We are talking about a specific case of a broader range of possibilities with this idea.
It is to be dishonest, the tendency to be dishonest. You are not being truthful. If you are being truthful, you would be honest about wanting to have sex with this person. That is what this entire thing is about. You create an opportunity for greater integrity with yourself and another human being. As I have been pointing towards, you open up a space for them to show up differently.
As I said earlier, we all share these masculine and feminine traits. What I have experienced, I was curious if you had as well, is that when and through abstaining, I would find that the women who typically showed up as defensive and fleeting as prey would, when I stopped showing up that way, they got to be the pursuers. They got to exercise their choice in desire. What I found is the less I would show up in default behavior in that way, and the less that I would be a pursuer, the more I would become the pursuit. There’s something that shifts in that dynamic. Any actor in this town knows that experience. The more you want a job, the less likely you are to get it.
I can’t say I have had that experience yet.
You had the opposite. When you have desired somebody too much, it pushes them away.
I have talked about this much to my embarrassment and regret, where I wasn’t my authentic self with someone because of those desires that I have eradicated. I haven’t become the pursuit. I have always found that when I have turned it off, it is off. That is fine. That is okay with me. I recognize, “I need to do some amount of initiating. There is something about me that requires that.”
I’m not celibate, but what I’m doing is I’m being much more judicious in how I’m approaching sexual and romantic connections. It has been exhilarating because it is empowering. I felt like this stuff was out of control in the sense that I had to do it. I’m able to channel that energy into other things, and I’m able to make it a choice. I’m able to actually recognize the default behavior when I’m going to open up an app or send a flirty text message. That allows me to make better connections and to take my time with it all.
That last point is the one that I most want to communicate to men. The thing that they want and driving for, they are pushing away.
It is counterintuitive. The issue is you think, “Why just try harder? I try harder.” It is a lot like exercise. Sometimes you need to rest in order to build muscle. Two things to end with. The first one is people are dying to know how they do not lose. Let’s say, for example, you like to get high. You take an edible, write your poetry, work on your art, and say, “I don’t want to have to rely on cannabis, alcohol, or some other substance in order to achieve something. I’m going to remove it.” The worry is you remove it, and you remove the benefit of it. You were saying how you were struggling to create. How did you get that back?
It is through practice and observation. I have continually discovered where enough of that thinking, feeling, and behaving motivates and moves me forward, and little of it disconnects me. That was only through trial and error, practicing, and going in entire years without any sexual gratification, not masturbation or anything.
You were celibate.
I had gone that far in this exploration.
I’m glad you said that because that is important for people to understand. There is a range I’m exploring which is more momentary that you might go not days, but weeks, months, even years forgoing something in order to experience the benefits.
It is a large spectrum there. It is not black or white. It is not of or then. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities. I started to see that it was opening possibilities up. I wanted to find where that sweet spot that I talked about earlier. Where is the sweet spot where I’m getting the most amount of return from this experience?
We have talked for a long time, and it is a fascinating conversation. It is one that most people never read. This is not something you talk about in polite company. This is not something that people discuss at dinner parties because there is a little bit of embarrassment around these drives and motivations. There is a little bit of ickiness around dating, meeting, and the behaviors associated with it, especially the topic of sex is something that is not supposed to be out in the public discourse.
It is valuable for people to read this conversation, even though admitting it is a specific topic can be limiting. The general topic is rather inclusive. What do people do? What should they do? What advice would you give them if they decided they wanted to start to explore? Your book is not going to come out for a long time. They have general strategies. This idea of pausing and choosing in the sense of how beneficial it is, but also how challenging it is going to be because you have to undo biological and social drivers. What advice would you give people who are intrigued by this and who are titillated?
It is simple, Peter. Simple is not necessarily easy. Observe and choose differently. Keep doing that. Keep observing and keep choosing differently.
Paying attention to the results you have.
I observe, choose differently, and observe again. I had a new experience. Was that experience closer to what I wanted or farther from what I wanted? Depending on what that answer is, observe again and choose differently. That is as simplistic as I can make it.
Can I add a friendly amendment?
Anybody who knows me knows how much I encourage people to journal and write down their thoughts and experiences. I have been meditating on this. Sometimes quite literally. Sometimes figuratively. I also have, at times, been reflecting on my experience in my journal. One of the values of that is if you ever go back and read, you start realizing how many concerns we have had in the world that ended up not being much of a concern, that things ended up being okay. Putting pen to paper in some ways makes this real. It slows our observation down and gives us a chance to return to that observation.
Explore the reason why you are driven to do something. That is part of that observation. If you explore that reason, are you attaining that end? Are you attaining it optimally? If not, how else might you? As we begin to liberate ourselves from these default ways of thinking, doing, and feeling, we unconsciously then begin to liberate others. That is the process of evolution.
Nick, I love you.
I love you too.
Thank you so much for doing this.
- Episode 150: Looking Forward, Backward, And Inward – Past Episode
- Nick Mennell – LinkedIn
- I Love You, Man – Past Episode
- The Fourth Turning
- Optionality – Past Episode
- Valuing Yourself – Past Episode
- How To Win Friends and Influence People
About Nick Mennell
Nick Mennell is part of a global network of consultants trained by Dr. Joe Dispenza, New York Times best-selling author, lecturer, and researcher, to teach organizations how to apply the neuroscience of change to increase employee engagement, collaboration, creativity, productivity, and ultimately — business results.
A Performance Advisor on a mission to help people and businesses grow. Focused on contribution and the celebration of life through discovery and the drive towards our collective highest callings. Also an entrepreneur with the same: an impassioned desire to enhance and improve the life experience and businesses of others.
Over a decade of experience doing this through mentorship, art, and digital media; using a variety of creative, conscientious, and forward-thinking approaches in an effort to create unique, memorable, and high-quality impressions that drive like-minded, forward-thinking humans to higher and higher levels of success. And last but not least formerly a Broadway/TV & Film Actor.