Let’s define purity as the state where your sexual desires and actions are in full agreement with your highest ideals. Impurity, then, would be the state where your desires and actions are betraying your ideals.  

Since acting on wayward cravings makes them grow stronger over time, the first step toward purity will always involve changing your behavior to stop reinforcing those cravings. 

Your desires are not under your direct voluntary control, but they do always respond to your behaviors: they are weakened if you do not act on them or strengthened if you do act on them.

 
We can define addiction as the state in which you repeatedly violate your ideals because of cravings. Repetitive impurity can thus always be considered an addiction.

Friendly quiz: Is it possible to have 100% perfect purity?

     
 
Welcome to the first tricky question! The answer is No, it isn't possible to have "100% perfect purity" in the sense that you never again have any desire that goes against your ideals. But you can have the virtue of purity as a stable character trait, meaning that your ideals continually guide your behaviors, and that your wayward impulses are brief and not too strong. That's the eventual goal.

 
You are right. We can never attain perfect purity in this life — we’ll always have at least occasional desires that go against our ideals. 

Purity is like a destination that we travel toward without ever fully arriving. It gives a clear direction for our efforts: the more we work at it, the closer we get to it.
 
This is the way ideals work: we commit ourselves to them, they guide our efforts, and we can always get closer to achieving them even while we always have more room to grow.

In behavioral therapy, goals are attainable steps on the way to ideals. For instance, if the ideal you were working on was being more affectionate with your spouse, a goal would be to make plans for a romantic dinner at his or her favorite restaurant. Once done, the goal can be “checked off.” Ideals can never be “checked off.”

 
Imagine that you are a bus driver, and your bus is just setting off, heading towards its destination. Unfortunately, your first stop is in a rather bad neighborhood — one full of bossy people. As soon as you start out on your way, the passengers start yelling at you: "Go faster!" "Slow down!" "You have to turn left now!!"

Your destination is the ideal. The passengers are the thoughts and feelings that you carry within you, which try to take over the direction of the "bus." Would you gain anything by fighting with the passengers, or going along with what they suggest, when you already know the way to get to your destination already?

(The bus metaphor is adapted from "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy" by Hayes et al, 1999)
     
 
Exactly! That's why it's so important to be clear about your ideals from the get-go. If you stay focused on the importance of going toward the destination, you will be ready to learn ways of dealing with the annoying passengers so that they don't take over.

 
Well, we may have to agree to disagree on this one. I'd say that the main thing is getting to your destination, and learning to simply be patient with all the noise along the way.

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy 17-18. New Harbinger Publications.
 
In our relationships with others, the virtue of love is the chief ideal that guides our efforts. We can always work at being more loving; we would never say “I’m already enough of a loving person, I don’t need to grow in love.” In fact, being loving means that you are always trying to love better — otherwise love wouldn’t be an ideal.

Love leads us to be more and more attentive, understanding, appreciating, affectionate, forgiving, and so on. These are all ideals that embody, in various ways, the great ideal of love.

Love is the driving force behind living every ideal, and all other ideals are best understood as being ways of loving.

 
Purity guides sexual intimacy along the path of love, and turns this intimacy into a way of living all of love’s ideals: generosity, fidelity, appreciation, affection, forgiveness.

Purity ensures that sex is in the first place about love — what you give to your spouse — and only secondarily about your own enjoyment. With purity, pleasure is not sought as an end in itself; instead it is elevated to the service of love.

 
We know that some belief we have about how we should act is an ideal by the very fact that it can become a stable habit while still allowing for unlimited growth.

A person can practice courage, for example, by doing a courageous action. If he follows this action with more courageous actions, he will be on his way to becoming courageous.  And yet, no matter how many courageous acts he performs, there is always room for growth. He does not have the habit at first, but by consistently acting with courage, he develops the habit, which makes acting courageously easier and more rewarding.

As we pursue an ideal by challenging ourselves to put it into practice, we find that the path gets progressively easier, more enjoyable, and more meaningful. Growing closer to the ideal is inherently rewarding — hence the old adage, “Virtue is its own reward.”

See http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/2s.htm for more on how this approach comes from Aristotle.
 
In behavioral therapy, this means that acts of virtue inherently provide positive reinforcement: they make the same virtuous action more likely to occur in the future. And so the more one acts according to a given virtue, the more positively reinforcing the action becomes. This process, by which a meaningful task gets easier and more enjoyable, is called a virtuous cycle.

You can experience virtuous cycles in all the parts of your life that take practice: relationships, work, sports, meditation or prayer, music, etc. 

Every worthwhile endeavor is hard at the beginning and, with practice, eventually becomes easier, more enjoyable, and more meaningful. All such endeavors can become ways of living out our ideals and, as such, the growth they afford has no inherent limit.

 
Our life is like a mountain that we must climb. Ideals are the summit, and they point the way. As we climb, day after day, we gradually become fitter and stronger and lighter: climbing gets easier because our muscles and skills keep growing; the process gets more enjoyable, and the views more rewarding, as we go.

All the things in us that would make climbing harder — excess weight, underdeveloped muscles — are eventually conditioned away: the process gets smoother and more gratifying as we come to love the activity of climbing itself; and the more we love climbing, the more we throw ourselves into it, making the process actually accelerate as we get closer to the top. It's not that the mountain gets smoother or more climbable, but rather, we are getting better at climbing. 

The best and highest climbers are practically falling upwards. 

If following our ideals always brings about virtuous cycles, can we say that ideals are just another name for virtues?

     
 
Well done! As described here, ideals and virtues are really synonyms. I generally prefer the word "ideals" because it communicates more clearly that they allow for unlimited growth.

 
Maybe the question made it sound trickier than it was. As described here, ideals and virtues are really synonyms. I generally prefer the word "ideals" because it communicates more clearly that they allow for unlimited growth.

 
Vicious cycles, on the other hand, are like riding a bicycle down the mountain — while pedaling.

At first it is easy. As you gain momentum, you can pedal faster and faster with less and less effort. At some point you realize that your feet are being pedaled for you, and you become a passive participant in a process you thought you controlled. Eventually it can feel impossible to slow down or change directions; you begin to feel trapped, and you wonder how long it will go until you crash or bottom out.

Whenever we let our emotions take charge of our actions, we are running the risk of starting a vicious cycle. We train ourselves to want things, and we train ourselves to fear things. We tend to avoid the things we fear, and we increase our fear of things by avoiding them.

Would you like an example?

See Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy 24-25. New Harbinger Publications.
 
Take fear of heights as an example. Imagine that a person goes onto a balcony in a high-rise apartment, and he gets very uncomfortable. He realizes that he is getting scared of how high up he is, and, when his anxiety gets to a peak, he decides he can't take it anymore and comes in off the balcony.

Unfortunately, by leaving the situation he taught his internal threat detector (the amygdala) that it was correct in sounding the alarm — that heights are something to be feared. The next time when he is in a high place, his amygdala will remember the lesson it was taught, and it will sound the alarm even faster, and the anxiety will peak even higher. Every time he escapes the anxious situation, he feels immediate relief; but he has continued the process of "threat learning" that is going on in his amygdala, so he has guaranteed that his fear of heights will only persist, and get worse, over time.

 
It’s the same with cravings. We train ourselves to want things either by enjoying them or by expecting to enjoy them. When we fulfill the craving, it goes quiet — at first. Then it begins to return, and gradually it gets stronger, building and building; if we give in again, it vanishes. But it will always return, for it has been reinforced by being fed. The stronger the craving gets, the greater the sense of automation the person will get when giving in to what the craving demands. Eventually the giving-in becomes so automatic that the craving itself is no longer consciously experienced. Automation is the essence of the vicious cycle.

See ‘Automatic Action Schemata and Drug-Use Behavior’ and ‘Summary and Conclusions’ in: Tiffany, S. T. (1990). A cognitive model of drug urges and drug-use behavior: Role of automatic and nonautomatic processes. Psychological review, 97(2), 147-168.
 
The purpose of behavioral therapy is to undo vicious cycles, and foster virtuous cycles. Behavioral therapy addresses the momentum that drives behaviors. In vicious cycles, this momentum is the process of increasing automation as one escapes painful emotions; in virtuous cycles, it is the growth in a sense of meaning, mastery and enjoyment that comes from pursuing ideals.

The essential virtue for fostering virtuous cycles is love (charity): it is the ideal of ideals, the virtue of every virtue.

The essential virtue for interrupting vicious cycles is patience.

 
Here's a helpful way of thinking about how we progress from a state where our cravings are dominating us, to a state where our desires are in accord with our ideals. I made this short video to help you better visualize what I'm saying.

 
Think of someone in your life whom you love, and who loves you. If you could overhear that person praising you, what qualities would it make you happiest to hear said about you?


 
The qualities that matter most to you are: {{answer_9841731}}.
When we talk about ideals, keep these qualities in mind. If you commit yourself to living these virtues, you will soon experience the positive effects of the virtuous cycles.

 
I am going to ask you some questions about what life would look like if it were fully informed by your ideals of being {{answer_9841731}}. 

First, when acting according to these ideals, where is the focus of your attention?


 
Not quite. Let's go back and look at the other option. (It was the right one.)

 
That's right! Your attention would be outwardly focused, fully engaged in the present moment.

Would your actions be more deliberate, or more automated?


 
I was thinking more along the lines of the other answer. Want to go back and check it out?

 
Precisely. It would be difficult to live up to your ideals without a certain degree of mindfulness.

And one last question: can a person act on these ideals even when a craving is present?


 
You've got it. You can still act on your ideals, even while a craving is present. Similarly, with practice, anyone can learn to act patiently while feeling impatient, to be encouraging while personally feeling frustrated, and so on.

 
Not quite! Let's go back. Be sure to read the other option (hint, hint).

 
Now, let's consider what your behavior is like when things are at their worst. What qualities would describe your behavior then?


 
The qualities that most describe your behaviors when things aren't going well are: {{answer_9842368}}.

These are the vicious cycles that you fall into most easily. Keep these qualities in mind when answering the next questions.

 
First, when acting in a way that is {{answer_9842368}}, where is the focus of your attention?


 
Are you sure?

 
Would your actions be more deliberate, or more automated?


 
Umm, probably not. Would you like to go back and try again?

 
I think you've gotten it now. When we are acting on our ideals, our attention is turned outward, pouring into the present moment and into our real lives. We can act this way even if a craving is present; whether or not we have a particular emotion is essentially irrelevant to living a rich, fulfilling life.

When we're in the throes of vicious cycles, we experience what we can call an "inward collapse of attention" (thank you, Adrian Wells, for this great phrase!). We get disengaged from real life and stuck in our heads. We tend to act in a more automated, mindless way.

 
Here's the most important question of this module, which brings together all that we've spoken about so far. 

How would you describe where you are right now in life? *

 
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