Wakes the lovers,
Floods the valley.
Making love is natural. Why be ashamed of it?
That seems simple, but it is actually a great challenge in these complex times. Too many other layers of meaning have been imposed upon sex. Religions straitjacket it, ascetics deny it, romantics glorify it, intellectuals theorize about it, obsessives pervert it. These actions have nothing to do with lovemaking. They come from fanaticism and compulsive behavior. Can we actually master the challenge of having lovemaking be open and healthy?
Sex should not be used as leverage, manipulation, selfishness, or abuse. It should not be a ground for our personal compulsions and delusions.
Sexuality is an honest reflection of our innermost personalities, and we should ensure that its expression is healthy. Making love is something mysterious, sacred, and often the most profound interaction between people. Whether what is created is a relationship or pregnancy, the legacy of both partners will be inherent in their creation. What we put into love determines what we get out of it.
– from 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, by Ming-Dao Deng
Next Monday, I am scheduled to give a teaching style talk on the topic of working skillfully with sexual energy at our local sangha Be Here Now. My talk is also intentionally paired with our next installment of Mindful Community Conversations on Thursday October 3rd, which is centered on the same topic thread and will feature a 4-person panel.
This topic has been on my mind to delve more into for quite a while now, especially as I continue to hear from young, single sangha members about the trials and tribulations of the dating scene. There is so much to bring into the light of our awareness and out of stigma and shadow when it comes to sexual relationships. And I don’t mind telling you that I’ve not known quite where/how to start until recently. But starting somewhere is better than not starting at all, so this is our sangha giving it a go.
I plan on focusing on these two specific parts of the Third Mindfulness Training in our Plum Village mindfulness tradition:
– Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct…
– Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy.
NOTE: While this is true for any talk given by any OI member, I feel it’s especially worth mentioning with this topic that the views, opinions, and insights that I’ll be sharing here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the whole of our tradition.
The Third Mindfulness Training starts with this opening sentence: 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. To me the place to start is with investigating what sexual misconduct is.
My Webster’s paperback dictionary, circa 1997, defines misconduct as: 1. mismanagement; 2. intentional wrongdoing; 3. improper behavior. When I jump to the next page, it defines mismanage as such: to manage badly.
As mindfulness practitioners, working skillfully with our sexual energy involves defining for our self what constitutes as sexual misconduct. It’s also important that we look deeply into the full spectrum of sexual misconduct and not just at the more extreme forms of it, such as abuse and rape – or a little further away from the end of the spectrum: infidelity.
Here’s my own definition of sexual misconduct: Any act fueled by sexual craving/desire that I feel the need to make an excuse for, cover up, hide, or put a spin on, to myself and/or others.
Some questions we can ask our self in this regard are: Is what I’m doing working for me? Do I feel good about what I’m doing? How are others possibly being affected around me by my actions? Is what I’m doing sustainable? It is nourishing? Is what I’m doing bringing me more joy or more shame?
There are a lot of subtleties in regards to sexual misconduct that easily and routinely get overlooked or disregarded. It’s also important to keep in mind that our definition of what constitutes as sexual misconduct might be different than someone else’s; so it’s worth learning how to both stay on our own side of the fence and not judge others and also learn how to better understand and show compassion for others by way of our actions.
I’ll give a couple of examples to hopefully help illustrate better what I am referring to here. So, I have a few friends who are either currently active or have been active in the past with polyamory, which involves having a sexual relationship with more than one partner, with the awareness and consent of all the people involved. I’ve also heard from a few friends who are interested or curious about it. And while there are different ways to approach polyamory, this is a good example of a possible difference of opinions and lifestyle approaches when it comes to sexual misconduct. Some may view polyamory as sexual misconduct, while for others it’s a working model of being in a romantic and sexual relationship. For some people, polyamory can work well. And for others, it can’t. So we can go back to the first question I mentioned we would do well to ask our self: Is what I’m doing working for me?
From my own experience, I’ll add here that if I had consciously asked myself this question when I was younger and dating and sexually active, I might have saved myself from a lot of pain and suffering. Between the ages of 15, when I first became sexually active, and 19, when I met my husband Mike, I had around 12 sexual partners. I was unable to stay faithful in my relationships and I was pretty reckless when it came to my sexual encounters. During that time, I really wanted to be the kind of girl that could have casual sex and sleep around, because I thought that’s what guys wanted and my self-worth hinged on attracting guys. But the reality was – and is still currently – I am a one guy gal. Having multiple partners simply doesn’t work for me. So it’s important to know – really know – what works for us and what doesn’t.
An example of what I mentioned in regards to having different ideas of sexual misconduct and learning how to better understand others in order to act more skillfully involves an experience I had a few years ago. I was at an event with a close, long-term male friend of mine who was visiting from out of state and his girlfriend at the time, who I didn’t know well at all, was also visiting with him and at this event. At one point I saw him sitting by himself so I went and sat next to him and started chatting. Now, I am someone who can be very touchy-feely, so I was sitting pretty closely to him and making some physical contact with him, which in my mind and heart was totally platonic. His girlfriend then came up to us and was clearly bothered by my physical contact with him. I could see in her body language and facial expression that she was clearly not okay with what I was doing. So even though I was acting in a genuinely platonic way, with no hint of sexual attraction on my part, I backed off from what I was doing, in order to help care for my friend’s girlfriend, who was experiencing my actions as a mild form of sexual misconduct. She was not okay with what I was doing and it’s important to me as a mindfulness practitioner that I stay not only in tune with what’s working for me but also what’s not working for others. So we must be aware of our self and others simultaneously, in regards to our actions.
Another example of this involves the age-old question: can heterosexual men and women be friends? And by friends I mean close friends who spend time together one-on-one and share openly and build a close relationship without sexual tension developing on one side of the fence or the other. And the answer I’ve come up with to this question for myself, currently, is: yes, I do think it’s possible AND it’s also very uncommon. A year or so ago, I struggled with losing a close friendship that I was developing with a male friend of mine and it took me a long time to realize that a big part of why I think he suddenly disappeared in our friendship was because of his own baggage with married women and his own discomfort with the fact that I was married and he and I were spending time together. Even though for me our relationship was totally platonic and my husband Mike knew full well where I was and who I was with and totally supported my friendship with this other guy, and I personally was not at all at risk of being unfaithful or even mildly inappropriate, this other guy was uncomfortable with our friendship based on his own experiences – it had nothing to do with me. And while it may have had nothing to do with me, I really pressed to keep that friendship going based on my lack of understanding of his feelings and in doing so I created more hardship for him. So again, our actions aren’t just about us – we need to expand our awareness to include how what we do impacts others as well.
(since this is such a long post, I’ll part 2 it in the next post)