Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.
True Love is the third of the five mindfulness trainings as part of the Plum Village tradition led by our root teacher Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been hearing – both directly and indirectly – from more and more sangha members, an increasing inquiry centered around how to date. And more appropriately: how to date well and skillfully, as a mindfulness practitioner.
When I first started hearing these ponderings from folks, I thought to myself: I have no freakin idea. And furthermore: I’m not sure I can ever offer anything on this particular topic, given that I’ve been married since I was 20-years-old. Isn’t is rather like the old adage to never get a haircut from a bald barber? Who wants dating advice from a seasoned married woman who’s dating history consists solely of being really poor at it from age 15-19?
But as is often the case for me, things have been percolating. I’m a s..l..o..w percolator. I often need time to digest and absorb things, in order to figure out how best to approach situations.
Oftentimes I’ll rotate a particular matter back and forth between the front burner and the back burner of my conscious thought process – and then at times I move the matter onto a whole other backup stove I have located in some other room, where it’s still simmering but more removed from my mental sight. Depending on the matter at hand, this might happen for weeks or months at a time before I feel as though I’ve landed on some insight or clarity into the subject.
Last week, on my way home from the market, some ideas starting taking shape as to what I might have to offer on the topic of dating. An insight arose: in between the lines of people wondering how to date well, is an underground inquiry about how to properly work with sexual energy. What people are really wondering about is how to engage in having sexual relations, especially outside of a long-term committed relationship and/or when true love is not part of the deal.
There are no hard and fast rules here, which is a big part of what makes the waters of what to do so challenging to navigate. To start, we shouldn’t be too quick to think that all people in a committed relationship don’t have to work on how to appropriately handle their own sexual energy, simply because they have round-the-clock access to a sexual partner. And we shouldn’t be too quick to think that all single people are pent up sexual volcanoes about to explode either. It’s important to keep in mind that we all have different levels of sexual energy – this isn’t a one size fits all sort of deal. And this energy level, like everything else, is impermanent and subject to change. It’s not helpful to compare one person to another here, or one demographic to another. We must remember to stay grounded in our own individual experience when it comes to sexual energy and the act of having sex.
Too often, we can rush into having sex with someone purely based on our intense physical attraction to them, without really getting to know them or finding out whether we’re compatible in other more meaningful and substantial ways. When this happens, we’re often left with feelings of regret, remorse, and perhaps even shame. It’s extremely important to mention here that there is NOTHING WRONG with experiencing physical attraction – or with the presence of sexual energy to begin with. We are sexual beings and there’s no logical counterargument to that.
However, most of us have been taught that sexual energy is a bad/dirty/wrong thing to have, at least on some level. Sure we’re a species largely driven to procreate, but that’s it. That’s where it should stop. We’ve been taught not to look into its role in our lives, how it shows up and effects our relationships (romantic and otherwise). We were taught on the mega-ultra DL to not take pleasure in sex, not to think about sex, and under NO circumstance are we ever to talk about it. And this level of cultural suppression can be incredibly dangerous and damaging.
The more we keep hidden the truth of how we are beings who will experience sexual attraction and are driven by sexual energy to engage in sexual relations with others, the more damaging our actions can potentially become as a result. The more we hide, keep secret, and suppress our sexual energy, the more likely it is to lead us to developing harmful and destructive habit energies, such as: consumption of pornography (which tends to further fuel our sexual desire in fantastical and un-satiable ways), one-night-stands, having multiple sexual partners, and regularly fantasizing about having other partners other than the one we’re with. In more severe conditions it can amp up into such things as: sexual harassment, sexual abuse, rape, uncontrollable obsession with pornography, sexual compulsive disorder, and the rampant objectification of others.
How we relate with, work with, and tend to our sexual energy is extremely important. It’s a very powerful energy and force and should not be underestimated.
A budding trend seems to be the notion that open relationships are the thing to do, where people are free to have other sexual partners while also still being in a committed relationship. While the model of an open relationship presents in different ways for different people ultimately, from my point of view, it speaks to an underlying, deeply entrenched inability to be comfortable and content in our own skin. We are in a constant state of discontent and we’re throwing everything including the kitchen sink at it, in an effort to address what we feel is in a perpetual state of lacking in our lives.
We as humans are easily swayed to the Dark Side, where unwholesome deeds preside. Where the temporary highs of instant gratification override the merits of true connection to the ever-changing landscape of our hearts and minds. We use sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll; meds, media, and the internet scroll; gaming, gambling, porn, and our phones all to fill a void we don’t understand.
After talking about this topic with my husband Mike, who’s been involved in a men’s group for many years as part of the ManKind Project, we landed on this commonality: men tend to seek validation through action-based activities (such as work, sports, physical labor) and women tend to seek validation through relationships/people. (This is a generalization, of course, and certainly not the case for all men or all women.) This dynamic can then set the stage for much strife and suffering when it comes to sex and working with sexual energy, as men seek to express themselves more through the physical act of sex and women seek to express themselves more through emotional connections with others.
Back during my short dating stint from age 15-19, I was constantly seeking validation from guys in order to cope with my low self-esteem. I was sexually promiscuous as soon as I started having sex at age 15. I was in a steady stream of relationships during this period of time and was unable to stay faithful in any of them. As soon as the high of having the attention of one guy wore off, I was off looking for someone else. I was a huge flirt and even if I wasn’t physically attracted to a guy and sex would likely never result between us, I would still take pleasure in knowing I could sleep with them if I wanted to. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is all a rather hard reality to face in myself – and, it’s extremely important that I do. I am not interested in furthering bunk story lines or pretending I’m someone other than who I am. I’m not interested in hiding or covering up stuff from my past. I’m invested in being open, honest, and truthful.
When I was 19, I stumbled across the SLAA (sex and love addicts anonymous) book by happenstance. I started reading it simply because I had never heard of SLAA and was curious about what it entailed. Much to my surprise, I resonated with what it was talking about right away. Prior to having picked up that book, I’d not been clued in at all as to what my patterns with guys were. I had no idea that I was hopping from guy to guy because of my low self-esteem or that I was a huge flirt. Prior to the book, I would’ve told you that the reason I had mostly all guy friends was that I simply got along with them better. I would’ve told you that my relationship tendencies and promiscuous (and sometimes risky) behavior was par for the course and typical of everyone I knew. I had been under the impression that since everyone was as dysfunctional as I was that it meant it was normal and okay – and not only okay but cool. And isn’t that the ultimate faulty, destructive notion so many of us get caught in: the coolness factor?!
To make a super long story short, I met Mike a few months after I started doing the step-work with a sponsor in the SLAA program. He’s been the only partner I’ve been faithful to and the only guy I’ve waited to sleep with until our relationship was firmly underway. We got married a little less than a year after we started dating. I was 20 and he was 21. And I wholeheartedly credit my having started sitting with a sangha and getting involved with this mindfulness tradition at age 22 to our continued partnership and success as a couple. I honestly don’t think I would’ve have the ability (or maybe even the desire), tools, and support to have stayed faithful were it not for this practice and the Mindfulness Trainings helping to guide me in a skillful direction. I would’ve left him in search for a never-ending parade of temporary man-highs. And as long as I wasn’t addressing the underlying motivation for my actions, I would’ve continued to be unhappy and unsatisfied in any partnership I attempted to delve into.
Whether we’re in a committed relationship or not, we all need to find appropriate and skillful ways of relating to and working with our sexual energy, because we all have it. And as a former attention-seeking junkie whose been with the same guy now for almost 20-years, I’ll tell you that for me it wasn’t something that just magically corrected itself once I found my life-mate. The difference is I have tools to work with attractions when they come up and I have the ability to look deeply into my motivations and thought patterns when they unfold – and I am aware of what’s steering the ship. Attractions to other people is part of being human, it’s not the attraction that’s the issue, it’s what I choose to do based on that attraction that matters.
So much of our sexual energy is operating under the surface waters of our consciousness. We’re unaware of what we’re doing, much less why we’re doing it, and this is the crux of so much of the confusion, harm, and damage being done when it comes to sex and working with sexual energy. Most of us are not given the proper tools for working skillfully with this energy in our lives. We’re slinking around behind the scenes of our friendships, being secretive, withholding information from those we most trust, and allowing our sexual energy to run amuck, going unchecked and misguided.
Due to the length of this post and how much more there still is to say – as strange as an ending point as this may be – I will choose to pause here for the time being. Stay tuned, as I’m sure more will continue to percolate for me on this thread.