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Posts Tagged ‘jealousy’

It’s not about sex, it’s about Self

In Too lazy to assign a category on March 17, 2008 at 10:24 pm

Fragments from an interesting read, It's not about sex, it's about Self, by Eric Francis:

(found via Ailim)

I don't understand love that excludes. To me, love's greatest quality is that it includes, to the best extent that we can cooperate. Yet theme of jealousy seems to be endemic to the human condition. There are few coherent ideas on the topic, much less sane ideas about what to do. Those in the reading audience who have explored polyamory (honest non-monogamy) will recognize some of its themes as the series develops, particularly the idea of compersion.

In practice, relationships and gender are fluid; they change and are subject to an ongoing process of revision and sometimes even conscious creation by individuals and by society. Our definitions of masculine and feminine seem important, but more often they are ridiculous. Despite being ridiculous, they make all kinds of demands on us that we hop to, as if somebody were pointing a gun.

The psyche on its deepest layers is so closely intertwined with sexual consciousness as to be one and the same with it. Because it accounts for how we come into the world, which is the only world we know, sex is cosmic. Yet discussion of sex is a kind of ruse for the real discussion, below the surface, and that is about one's sense of identity and existence.

Our relationship to sex and sexuality is our relationship to existence. If we feel good about our erotic experiences, needs and feelings, we tend to feel good about life. If we are bitter, if we don't get what we need, if we feel guilty or ashamed of our sexual feelings and experiences, that is most likely how we're going to feel about life. This can manifest some strange ways, such as violence and manipulation, just like feeling good about sex can manifest as a passionate, creative person who creates their existence consciously every day.

He could think; he could see; he could hear. His memory and imagination were intact. But he could not move or express himself — except for one eye. This is called "locked-in syndrome." It is consciousness locked into a body that cannot respond; it is the ultimate mind-body split.

I think that sexually, we are a society of people suffering from a variant of locked-in syndrome. We may have our erotic imaginations, we may have our memories and we may have our desires. But we have untold thousands of reasons not to act on or even speak about our experiences. To some extent, nearly everyone in the current version of Western culture is erotically paralyzed.

Monogamy for most people is less about fidelity and more about not wanting to make one's partner jealous. Or, it's about being good, whether out of guilt, or so they don't do anything that makes you jealous.

"My jealousy keeps me monogamous. Seriously, what other reason would there be?" She admitted she didn't want him to do anything that would make her jealous, either. I call this kind of deadlock gunpoint monogamy: if you move, I'll shoot. If I move, you'll shoot. We both better be good. Note, I don't believe this has anything to do with love.

We know inside that we're all responsible for our own jealousy. Yet typically we either make it everyone else's fault ("he made me jealous"), or take on the burden of shielding others from what might stir up their rage (and this is often a convenient, deceptive excuse). Projection takes many forms. I've noticed that the people who pour on the jealousy tend to be the most likely to cheat.

Relationships in our society and in many others are trumped up as the pearl of great price, the most valuable thing in the universe — and to many, it makes sense to avoid the one thing that could threaten this, at any cost. The result is we can gradually come to live lives of total deception. As a result, the emotional subject matter that we need to open up about in our relationships goes unaddressed. We avoid jealousy and thus avoid what it has to offer us as a growth tool; as a cosmic mirror. We avoid truth, and erotic energy dies.

Much of that unaddressed emotional material involves insecurity and lack of self-esteem. A relationship can cover that up for a while, and jealousy can quickly expose the emotional void we lived with all along. If someone wants someone else, we must be unworthy. For most people, jealousy is so painful and so entirely debilitating that it makes sense to avoid it, just like you would not intentionally put your hand on a hot stove.
 
The idea that one's lover could be with someone else is often viewed as the ultimate betrayal, and the worst form of abandonment. The supposed solution is to avoid the feeling and anything that can lead to it at all costs, though without recognizing what that cost really is. Taken unconsciously, the cost of jealousy is loss of the right to exist, or the denial of your partner's right to exist. Usually, both happen together.

As adults, guilt is to love and happiness what embalming fluid is to human blood. In many relationships, it has come to entirely replace the sense of bonding, friendship and kindness that previously characterized the joining. Our guilt is the means by which we allow other people to control us; when we give up our guilt, we are no longer subject to emotional manipulation, and therefore partners, parents, bosses and so forth can no longer control us; we are free.

If we are lacking self-esteem — a problem so pervasive as to be invisible — we are going to have a lot of problems in relationships. This can account for much of our stuff around jealousy. For example, if we need a relationship to know that we exist, then we will naturally feel that our existence is threatened if our partner so much as smiles at someone else.

Whatever may be a natural thing for a human to do — we don't know, because we've gone so far from it — there is incalculable social pressure to behave within extremely strict rules that, as it happens, rarely ever follow the natural course of human emotion or desire.
 
Both sanctioned forms of relationship, marriage or temporary promiscuity, imply that relationship is about property: in one case, property you keep, and in the other, property you dispose of.
 
There are people who practice alternatives. Maybe you're friends with a few; maybe you don't even know it. They have good reasons to keep quiet: for example, a judge can take away their kids. It's considered weird to have an open marriage, to be polyamorous, or to stay single and have sex with your friends. If you're married and are secretly lesbian or bisexual, you live a hidden double life — for a reason. If you are openly bisexual, it is usually presumed that you will be serially monogamous and only have relations with one sex or the other at a time.

Acceptable models of relationship tend to have an all or nothing quality; they are black and white deals involving total surrender. You are either married or a slut. Past a certain age, you're a good husband or a womanizer who can't settle down and make a commitment.

If you are polyamorous (someone who practices conscious non monogamy), others may be polite toward you, but most will presume that there must be "something missing" from your relationship, which is why you have other love interests. (And if you have kids, please do not go on TV and talk about it.) Truly, I am happy ever to see a positive response outside the poly community itself. Many people know they would adore having a couple of lovers, so I imagine there would be some secret jealousy. Or, if you're a man and openly say you're poly, you will likely be presumed by many in the straight world to be an kind of polite womaniser whose primary partner has no self-esteem. A few people will be secretly envious, but will likely keep that quiet to. Who knows, I don't get out a lot. Maybe times are changing.

You might think of compersion, which is about embracing the love and pleasure of our lover or anyone else, as a study in flight dynamics. This is akin to pointing the nose of an air plane downward when you go into a stall created by a jealous episode. It takes courage to do this in any event, but particularly when you're caught flying low to the ground. But it may be the only way to keep from crashing.
 
Looked at another way, compersion is the full appreciation of another person's pleasure and indeed their existence — something many relationships could use a lot more of. If we could indeed get there, this would be an excellent resolution for jealousy and much besides. Our relationships would be more interesting, more compassionate and best of all, make room for who we really are.
 
More than being a protective measure, compersion is a daring way to explore the emotional dynamics of pleasure and human interaction, as well as to work through attachment and guilt. It's a way to take a constructive approach to shame and embarrassment. For people who are considering opening up to their relationship to other partners, it's the thing that makes the process safe and sane.

While we're considering the subject of relationships, and jealousy in particular, we need to remember that in our society, the ideas we are given about love are competitive. Only one person is going to "get" you; for any individual, the chances are six billion to one. There seems to be not enough of anything for all of us, so we have to compete; we have to be Number One. We may say this is the way of nature, but humans love to point out how far above nature they are.
 
Most of our ideas about life and love are based on scarcity. Even on a planet where you have billions of people without partners, many of them can't find a date on a Friday night. Have you ever considered how twisted that is? Such as when you're home alone and horny and want some company, and you realize there must be millions of people in this same condition? On a planet with so many people, you would think there would be nothing easier to find than other people, or someone special. On a planet where so many people want sex, you would think there would be plenty of it. Yet even in this state of total abundance, we manage to turn it around and live in the midst of a horrid shortage. (No matter what people may have, or need, unless they're willing to give and receive — generally in that order — there is no exchange possible. That is part of the problem.)
 
In this desert, we tend to fear two things. What we fear most is abandonment. Even if that one special person has found us, or vice versa, the big fear is that we will lose them; that they will find someone else. Often, even when we find love, we live with a sense of incredible frailty, sensitivity and imminent doom. This is usually based on the fear of not being good enough; indeed, at times on a total absence of self-esteem.
 
The second thing we fear is being close to others. A great many people don't like who they are inside, and are terrified about the prospect of exposing this to others. Many people survive by making up a fake character, and if someone gets close to us, we may fear that they'll figure out we're empty and thus undeserving of love.

Some feel that jealousy is about the desire to be preferred, or a sense of competition because we all want the best. Or it is a kind of extreme envy, where you want what someone else has. The author is proposing that these are superficial issues that conceal the true spiritual matter beneath jealousy — and if we stay on the surface, we miss the benefit we can get from encountering the deeper levels directly. Jealousy will haunt us and never become a teacher or ally.

There is profound surrender involved in any situation where jealousy comes up — in truth, you cannot do anything about how other people feel or what they want. We can try to violate that by attempting to gain control over the situation, or we can let go — and letting go is one of the sexiest and most pleasurable things known to humanity. For as much as we cling and struggle to control ourselves, everyone and everything, what I think we we need the most is to let go.
 
I recognize that in the middle of the fear, rage, pain and loss associated with a jealous experience, this may feel like pointing the airplane directly at the ground — it violates common sense, and goes contrary to all the body's instincts. There is no way you're supposed to be turned on by your lover caring about someone else, or be comforted by the knowledge that they're wrapped in someone else's arms. That would be a form of masochism, right? What do you do with all that overwhelming feeling of betrayal? And of course, even if you can get there, it's not socially acceptable. If you described feeling any pleasure at your partner's feeling of love for someone else, your friends might think you had lost your mind.
 
But having found one's mind is more likely to be true. The point here is simple: to be free. Remember, that's not socially acceptable. Human beings often come to love the bonds that chain them; the rooms that imprison them. We seem to love the drama of jealousy, its intensity, its pathos, and we do so without going underneath to see what's there. Attachment provides a sense of belonging. There are people who don't feel loved unless their partner gets jealous. There are people who don't feel loved unless their partner experiences guilt for having any pleasure that doesn't involve them. The logic of monogamous guilt is, "He will be mad at me if I do something that feels good and don't feel guilty." After a while this becomes a serious block to love. Control, which is often effected through guilt, is a direct obstacle to the space that love needs to be itself. Compersion allows what exists to be itself.

Compersion is a lot like compassion, but the origin, the core of the idea, is specifically sexual. You could say it's about recognizing what someone feels and embracing that, but I think that (like jealousy) it is closer to the existential level. Per means one or individual, so compersion is embracing the whole person and their experience. This is supposed to be what love is about. Unfortunately, once guilt and jealousy get into the picture, who a person is as an individual ends up being the last thing on most people's minds.
 
If you follow the experience, you may notice that it leads to a complete reversal of how we are supposed to experience life; it goes contrary to all the values of possession, control and commitment that characterize our relationships.
 
Compersion is the complete acknowledgement of who a person is, in their entirety, as apart from you. All they may feel, go through, need, experience, desire; their fears and repulsions and conflicts are all included. This is holistic empathy.

Some relationships have nothing to do with this elusive concept of who a person is. Even in more enlightened relationships, as it works out, we can do this for people close to us in many aspects of life, except for sexual. Embracing someone — such as a lover or person we desire — in the full spectrum of their erotic reality presents a specific challenge, because it can quickly take us to the empty place where we are no longer necessary. So often in this empty space we still love, because we don't have a choice, or because we refuse to not love.
 
It's as close to ego death or even death as we may safely approach, because our own identity and individual needs stand outside of the equation — except in that we're aware enough to embrace the other in all their feelings and experiences.
 
This degree of embracing the other is entirely necessary for any sense of fulfilment in love, in erotic expression or in art. To do this we must first cease to exist, and then find existence within the emptiness. It is right there! In a sense, we are born into that emptiness, shorn of expectation, need, or the sense of loss involved with not being needed. Or, at the least, we recognize that we are needed because of the incomparable properties we possess. And in that space, we can actually exist.
 
To offer another person your compersion is to offer them and yourself the autonomy necessary for each of us to be ourselves; and for love to be itself. It is the living expression that only truth is erotic.
 
If you're ever wondering where all the erotic energy has gone from your life, this is something to consider.

We might wonder, why bother with all of this, when you can just have a monogamous relationship? You know, keep things nice and simple? Well, that works in theory. When we look closer at a human psyche, we discover that people are more complex than they are monogamous. For the most part, monogamy is perpetuated by not discussing what we really feel. Even when two people really want to be together, often, anything that might threaten the relationship is quietly dropped from the discussion.

In many monogamous relationships, people have needs that they feel guilty about getting met outside the relationship. The guilt becomes the means by which people control themselves and one another. Compersion is a way to get free of that extremely toxic exchange that happens in so many relationships.
 
Once you get the hang of compersion, as an emotion and not just a concept, life gets easier. You can give yourself more space to feel, give your lover more space to feel, and the happiness of others can spill over into your life. You can learn from others how to be happy. You don't need to keep up with the Jones's (and you probably would not want to). After a while, you can start to feel what love is like when you subtract the competition and guilt. Why don't you need guilt? Well, because whatever you feel is okay. Then after a while, what you need is okay. Then, what you do is okay — it has nothing to do with the love you feel for your partner.

Compersion starts with telling the truth to your partner about all things erotic. This may be difficult, but it gets easier as you practice and build confidence. It's also a great way to find out if you're with the right person.

When dealing with resistance in any form, let the fear have a voice. Let the fear speak first, and don't moralize it out of existence — it will be more cooperative if it knows you're listening. Be aware that it is fear. This is an opportunity to be reassuring. If someone goes into a panic, you are getting a look at the dynamics which underlie your relationship. Make sure you see them for what they are.

I have a theory, and I'm eager to try it on society. I believe we can ease a lot of the stifling sexual tension we live with by recognizing and moreover appreciating one another as independent erotic beings. We need to recognize that everyone has an erotic reality, and love that reality — without necessarily needing to take over or mixing energies all the way. Compersion is about appreciating, recognizing, identifying, feeling, witnessing and loving — all from a little distance, and most of all respecting everyone's autonomy of feeling. It's a fine way to live. It eases the pain of isolation and points the way to unusual and deeply nourishing emotional and erotic pleasures. The only catch, and it's a big one, is you need the willingness to be free.

To plunge into this deeply negative programming and begin to unravel it takes courage. To consciously challenge any cultural programming takes guts, devotion and creativity. To seek something different, a world based on pleasure, sharing and understanding, takes even more courage. Usually, such a journey requires help and it takes some resources, in particular, different ideas than the ones we were taught and a means of deciding what is really true for us. And I don't think we are going to do it alone. The most important ingredient is something that anyone can call upon and receive: the desire to connect with oneself, and then with those around us.

Wilhelm Reich in his book The Function of the Orgasm proposed that sex is a creative act and that biological reproduction is the outgrowth of that creativity, rather than the purpose of sex. He proposed that the Christians — the single most anti-sex religion known to history — and everyone else has it backwards. Sex is about creation first and reproduction second. It is no wonder that sex — when it's sane and up-front — is rejuvenating, creatively inspiring, and helps us feel beautifully human.
 
We do not need to look far to solve the greatest crime against humanity — the co-opting of sex and sexuality by religion as evil. Instead of being taught to celebrate that which gives us creation and life, we are taught to lie, to hide and to feel guilty. We encase creativity and love in "romance," drama and pathology when we could just as easily, and with far less expenditure of time and energy, celebrate existence. We live in a world where it seems sex must always have a victim. It's dumb, but why do we fall for it?
 
Our culture has no idea of what sex meant, how it was practised, or how people felt about it before the burning of libraries and the women; the smashing of artefacts and our psyches. If we want to know, we are going to need to seek the truth, and very patiently teach ourselves and one another a new way of being.

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Polyamory, Sex and Jealousy

In Too lazy to assign a category on February 10, 2008 at 2:23 pm

While browsing posts around Vox tagged with 'poyamory', I came across the post Love and Sex by Paxton, who was linking to my posts tagged with 'relationships', portraying me as an advocate of polyamory. I wanted to comment on the article because in my opinion he overemphasises the importance of sex. Unfortunately commenting was disabled, so I sent him a private message, with some random thoughts that came up:

Polyamory is the idea that we should shuck the old shackles of matrimony and jealousy, and feel free to create bonds with multiple sexual partners in a non-exclusive arrangement.  It has some very well-spoken proponents.

I just now ran into your post where you are linking to blog posts of mine. As I can't comment on your post, I feel compelled to send you a private message and I might post about this on my own blog.

In the above, and in the entire post, in my opinion, you emphasise the sexual aspect too much. Polyamory isn't about sexual partners per se, although there always is the option to make a bond sexual as well, and for poly people excluding sexuality feels unnatural. It is however about creating long term lovin g relationships with more than one person, where all parties involved are aware of the situation (no cheating). Swinging is more about sex, and not always long term, although some couples swing with the same partners  over periods of years and years.

One can run into the same problems as within a monogamous relationship, and the situation is perhaps more complex, as there are more people, with their emotions and insecurities, to keep in mind. Poly people are usually very committed … to several people.

Bonding may occur in some without jealousy.  People who respond this way to our chemicals are probably rare, but would be excellent candidates for polyamory.  For most, though, the two go hand in hand and jealousy is unavoidable.  I think this is why the truly polyamorous – experiencing bonding and love without jealousy – seem to be a very small portion of the human population, despite the utopian ring that it has.  Human biology can't be changed by adopting a philosophy of a jealousy-free life.

Polyamory doesn't do away with jealousy. Poly people do recognise the feeling of jealousy. Nobody is immune to jealousy. It's like being immune to fear or hunger or anger. Some people may be naturally more jealous than others, but anybody can feel jealous.

Jealousy itself is an interesting emotion, because jealousy is a composite emotion, that is based on other emotions. It's a second-order emotional response–something happens, that thing causes you to feel threatened or to feel insecure or to feel something negative about yourself, and then that fear or insecurity makes you feel jealous. For that reason, the root of jealousy is often surprisingly difficult to pin down and understand.

Instead, what happens is that people look at the event which is the proximal cause of the jealousy and assume that that event is the source of the problem. "My partner kisses another person, I feel jealous; therefo re, it's the kiss that makes me jealous. The way to deal with the jealousy is to tell my partner to stop kissing people."

It doesn't even have to be sexual. Imagine your partner having a very close friend (perhaps of the same sex) and spending 5 nights a week with that person. Even though nothing sexual has happened, you'd probably feel jealous. Probably even rightfully so.

Yes, jealousy is unavoidable. However, there are several ways to deal with jealousy.

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Organic Love

In Too lazy to assign a category on December 29, 2006 at 12:50 pm

Organic Love: An Ecology of Sustainable Relationship by Eric Francis

We're all familiar with organic food. This is food grown without pesticide sprays or toxic fertilizers, from natural seeds that have escaped genetic engineering. In theory, organic food has no synthetic preservatives or artificial dyes, nothing extra that it does not need (like plastic filler) and it's handled in a way that preserves some of the integrity of what nature created. Due to crop loss, it's expensive (though cheaper than restaurant food, which most of us eat a lot of).

But it's better. Organic food is often sold closer to the natural growing times, and there are some philosophies of organic diet (Macrobiotics, for example) which suggest that we eat only food grown locally and when it's in season. Most important, we think of organic food as whole food, rather than food which is fractioned off like white flower, or recombined to make weird things like fortified breakfast cereal or vitamin D skim milk.

The organic food philosophy (usually known in Europe as Biodynamics) honors the reality that both the land and people need to be healthier and the relationship between the two is food. There is an acknowledged connection between ecology (which means the "study of home") and the health of the people who live in that home.

A concept at the core of organic eating is sustainability. We know that our current agricultural system is killing the planet and making us sick; we know that most of the foods available in the supermarket lack basic nutrition. Organic farming, Biodynamics and other philosophies show how we can sustain both human life and planetary life through one process.

We also know that the society's teachings about relationships, which glorify possession of other people, which rely on artificial structures, and which are usually based on oppressive, negative ideas, are harming us, and damaging health of the planet, just as aggressively as agribusiness. Unfulfilled, emotionally undernourished people an be risky to the happiness of others, especially when they grow angry and spread emotional toxins. And this is most of what we get in the world when we enter the human environment.

So, what about organic love?
 
Toxic ideas about love, like toxic food, are sold in the supermarket, at the check-out counter. Flip through those magazines, or just look at the covers (who doesn't?). They teach us to think in terms of ideas like "married" and "monogamous"; we can learn to please or be more pleasing to our partner; we can have affairs, which means lying and "cheating," and there are instruction manuals for catching our partners in these activities. We read a lot about rape and violence, which are portrayed like sexy advertising. People are "gay" or "straight" and if they're really wild, they're "bisexual." We tend to consume these ideas as unconsciously as we consume food containing polysorbate-80, hormone-tainted meat and sugar-packed soft drinks with laced with propylene glycol.

Over the past 40 or so years, several different relationship outlooks have added some diversity and allowed people to be more natural.

The polyamory movement is one of these. Polyamory (meaning more than one love) suggests that it's natural for people to have more than one sexual relationship at a time. When you consider how many people do have more than one sexual relationship at a time (but deny it), then the real claim-to-fame of polyamory is that people are getting together and making a choice to face reality, and to be happier as who they are.

Polyamory has its own problems; for one thing it's a kind of "movement" and not everybody wants to join a movement. Part of its movement quality, though, is based on the idea that this lifestyle requires support. Another problem with poly is that it's based on the idea of "poly," meaning more than one lover. What about people who want to have more natural relationships tending toward monogamy? Here, the notion of "polyamory" can alienate people who may otherwise have a lot else in common with poly folk.

Many people have observed that polyamorous relationships often have many of the same confusion and toxic issues as monogamous relationships, just spread out among more people. Some would say that this makes the weirdness worse, and others would say that expanded relationship models give us a chance to see the dynamics in action, and work them out openly (remembering how many people cheat).

It may be that so-called monogamy has problems, but that polyamory does not really address them because these problems reside closer to the core of who we are, and what we are trained to be in our society.

Without going into a long discourse on religion, most of our ideas about relationships are based on Christian metaphysics (God was born to a virgin and never had sex; and the love of God is more important than human love experienced in the body), which are then heavily overlaid with romantic ideals (such as the idea of finding a one-and-only erotic love, to the dismissal of all other loves) that send us spinning wildly in the other direction.

Combine this debate with natural hormone biology, and you can see all our conflict in and about relationships, from guilt to jealousy to cheating, as products of a war between two belief systems (religion versus romance) plus our naturally horny, delightfully curious human nature.

In witness to life, I offer a few ideas about how we might go about creating organic love.

<> All love starts with selflove. In order to love another person we need to be at peace with who we are, which means loving and appreciating ourselves-including sexually. Selfloving means being a whole person. If we bring this whole person into our relationships, we are likely to find greater peace and fulfillment.

<> Love requires trust in order to grow naturally. Trust is both intuitive and cultivated. In an atmosphere of trust, it is easier to feel safe enough to be oneself, which will allow greater expression in loving relationships-of love, fear and other emotions that we face.

<> People are naturally curious about one another. Can we deny this? Why bother? We need to allow for human nature in our human relationships. If we are with a beautiful person, we can presume that others will be curious and want to get close to that beauty; we can presume the same thing about ourselves.

<> People seem more beautiful when we are in love. And we seem more beautiful to them. When we are in love, we are love magnets. If we allow for this fact rather than trying to deny it, I believe we'll be happier and live more naturally.

<> People really cannot be controlled; we are our own people. We can lie and act like we are controlled; we can kid ourselves and think we control another. Both are false rather than wrong. Once control has entered a relationship, it has filled in spaces where many other nutrients are lacking, such as trust, allowing, or selflove.

<> Relationships take their own form and each is different. Relationships grow, like plants; they are change as they become. We may go through different seasons of love, and might want one partner some years or some days, and more than one partner some years or some days.

<> Communication is a learned skill and is essential to relationships. Communication is based on honesty; honesty is a learned skill as well. We learned to lie in order to defend ourselves against deception, control and attack. In order to communicate honestly, we need to teach one another to do so patiently-within contexts that are free from deception, control and attack.

<> Our homes need to support our relationships. As our own people, we need our own spaces. It is much healthier for people to have safe retreats, a safe space to call their own. I suggest that in live-in, long-term relationships, people have their own rooms and their own beds, and invite one another as guests.

<> Sexual beings often make babies. Though the science of this was not understood until the late 19th century, we now know for sure that sex can lead to birth. We know that most pregnancies are unplanned, but there is no excuse for this. Men and women each need to take 100% responsibility for birth control, and for birth, as a matter of love for one another and for the unborn. We cannot always stop undesired pregnancy, but we can all accept responsibility for working to do so.

<> We are each responsible for our own healing of childhood wounding and past relationships. If we don't, we will dump our toxic emotions, most of which began with our family of origin (blame, guilt, shame, resentment) onto our partners rather than dealing with them. Taking this responsibility would include each person in a relationship being on a conscious path of growth, whether spiritual or with a therapist of some kind: having a space outside the relationship to deal with one's own life, including relationship experiences.

<> Jealousy is not what it seems to be, and to love organically we need to get to the heart of the matter. Jealousy is an expression of deep attachment, and to transcend it we must approach it as a natural erotic force, in a sense, as erotic pain. We are all of mortal flesh and will not be with our partners "forever." But we can be with them in any one moment, which is all that there is anyway.

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Monogamy, polyamory and beyond

In Too lazy to assign a category on December 23, 2006 at 11:40 pm

Spirituality and Intimate Relationships

Monogamy, Polyamory, and Beyond

In Buddhism, sympathetic joy (mudita) is regarded as one of the “four immeasurable states” (brahmaviharas) or qualities of an enlightened person—the other three being loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and equanimity (upeksha). Sympathetic joy refers to the human capability to participate in the joy of others, to feel happy when others feel happy. Although with different emphases, such understanding can also be found in the contemplative teachings of many other religious traditions such as the Kabbalah, Christianity, or Sufism, which in their respective languages talk about empathic joy, for example, in terms of opening the “eye of the heart.” According to these and other traditions, the cultivation of sympathetic joy can break through the ultimately false duality between self and others, being therefore a potent aid on the path toward overcoming self-centeredness and achieving liberation.

Though the ultimate aim of many religious practices is to develop sympathetic joy for all sentient beings, intimate relationships offer human beings—whether they are spiritual practitioners or not—a precious opportunity to taste its experiential flavor. Most psychologically balanced individuals naturally share, to some degree, in the happiness of their mates. Bliss and delight can effortlessly emerge within us as we feel the joy of our partner’s ecstatic dance, enjoyment of an art performance, relishing of a favorite dish, or serene contemplation of a splendid sunset. And this innate capacity for sympathetic joy in intimate relationships often reaches its peak in deeply emotional shared experiences, sensual exchange, and lovemaking. When we are in love, the embodied joy of our beloved becomes extremely contagious.


Jealousy in Monogamous Relationships


But what if our partner’s sensuous or emotional joy were to arise in relation not to us but to someone else? For the vast majority of people, the immediate reaction would likely be not one of expansive openness and love, but rather of contracting fear, anger, and perhaps even violent rage. The change of a single variable has rapidly turned the selfless contentment of sympathetic joy into the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy, as Shakespeare called this compulsive emotion.

Perhaps due to its prevalence, jealousy is widely accepted as “normal” in most cultures, and many of its violent consequences have often been regarded as understandable, morally justified, and even legally permissible. (It is worth remembering that as late as the 1970s the law of states such as Texas, Utah, and New Mexico considered “reasonable” the homicide of one’s adulterous partner if it happened at the scene of discovery!). Though there are circumstances in which the mindful expression of rightful anger (not violence) may be a temporary appropriate response—for example, in the case of the adulterous breaking of monogamous vows—jealousy frequently makes its appearance in interpersonal situations where no betrayal has taken place or when we rationally know that no real threat actually exists (for example, watching our partner’s sensuous dance with an attractive person at a party). In general, the awakening of sympathetic joy in observing the happiness of one’s mate in relationship with perceived “rivals” is an extremely rare pearl to find. In the context of romantic relationships, jealousy functions as a hindrance to sympathetic joy.

What are the roots of this widespread difficulty in experiencing sympathetic joy in the arenas of sexuality and sensuous experience? What is ultimately lurking behind such an apparently defiled behavior as jealousy? Can jealousy be transformed through a fuller embodiment of sympathetic joy in our intimate relationships? What emotional response can take the place of jealousy? And what are the implications of transforming jealousy for our spiritually informed relationship choices? To begin exploring these questions, we need to turn to the discoveries of modern evolutionary psychology.


Evolutionary Map of Jealousy


The evolutionary origins and function of jealousy have been clearly mapped by contemporary evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, and zoologists. Despite its tragic impact in the modern world (the overwhelming majority of mate battering and spousal murders worldwide is caused by jealous violence), jealousy very likely emerged around 3.5 million years ago in our hominid ancestors as an adaptive response of vital evolutionary value for both genders. Whereas the reproductive payoff of jealousy for males was to secure certainty of paternity and avoid spending resources in support of another male’s genetic offspring, for females it evolved as a mechanism for guaranteeing protection and resources for biological children by having a steady partner. In short, jealousy emerged in our ancestral past to protect males from being cuckolded and to protect women from being abandoned. This is why even today men tend to experience more intense feelings of jealousy than women do when they suspect sexual infidelity, while women are more likely than men to feel threatened when their mates become emotionally attached to another female and spend time and money with her. Modern research shows that this “evolutionary logic” in relation to gender-specific jealousy patterns operates widely across disparate cultures and countries, from Sweden to China, from North America and the Nether-lands to Japan and Korea.

The problem, of course, is that many instinctive reactions that had evolutionary significance in ancestral times do not make much sense in our modern world. There are today many single mothers, for example, who do not need or want financial—or even emotional—support from their children’s fathers, yet still feel jealous when their ex-partners pay attention to other women. And most contemporary men and women suffer from jealousy independent of whether they want children or plan to have them with their partners. As evolutionary psychologist David Buss puts it in his acclaimed book The Evolution of Desire, most human mating mechanisms and responses are actually “living fossils” shaped by the genetic pressures of our evolutionary history. 


Our Genetic Instincts


Interestingly, the genetic roots of jealousy are precisely the same as those behind the desire for sexual exclusivity (or possessiveness) that we have come to call “monogamy.” In contrast to conventional use, however, the term “monogamy” simply means “one spouse” and does not necessarily entail sexual fidelity. In any event, whereas jealousy is not exclusive to monogamous bonds (swingers and polyamorous people also feel jealous), the origins of jealousy and monogamy are intimately connected in our primeval past. Indeed, evolutionary psychology tells us that jealousy emerged as a hypersensitive defense mechanism against the genetically disastrous possibility of having one’s partner stray from monogamy. In the ancestral savannah, it was as imperative for females to secure a stable partner who would provide food and protect their children from predators as it was for males to make sure they were not investing their time and energy in someone else’s progeny. Put simply, from an evolutionary standpoint the main purpose of both monogamy and jealousy is to provide for the dissemination of one’s DNA.

In a context of spiritual aspiration aimed at the gradual uncovering and transformation of increasingly subtle forms of self-centeredness, we can perhaps recognize that jealousy ultimately serves a biologically engrained form of egotism which we may call “genetic selfishness”—not to be confused with Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene” theory, which reduces human beings to the status of survival machines at the service of gene replication. Genetic selfishness is so archaic, pandemic, and deeply seated in human nature that it invariably goes unnoticed in contemporary culture and spiritual circles. An example may help to reveal the elusive nature of genetic selfishness. In the movie Cinderella Man, an officer from the electric company is about to cut off the power at the residence of three children who will very likely die without heat—it is winter in New York at the time of the Great Depression. When the children’s mother appeals to the compassion of the officer, begging him not to cut off the power, he retorts that his own children will suffer the same fate if he does not do his job. As I looked around the theater, I noted a large number of people in the audience nodding their heads in poignant understanding. We can all empathize with the officer’s stance. After all, who would not do the same in similar circumstances? Is it not both humanely understandable and morally justifiable to favor the survival of one’s own progeny over that of others? But, we may want to ponder, was the officer’s decision the most enlightened action to take? What if by saving our only child we were condemning to death three or four children from another person? Should numbers be of any significance in these decisions? What course of action is most aligned with universal compassion in these admittedly extreme situations? Any effort to reach a generalized answer to these questions is likely misguided; each concrete situation requires careful examination within its context and from a variety of perspectives and ways of knowing. My aim in raising these questions is not to offer solutions, but merely to convey how tacitly genetic selfishness is embedded as “second nature” in the human condition.


Transforming Jealousy Into Sympathetic Joy


The discussion of the twin evolutionary origins of jealousy and monogamy raises further questions: Can jealousy be truly transformed? What emotional response can take the place of jealousy in human experience? And how can the transformation of jealousy affect our relationship choices? 

To my knowledge, in contrast to most other emotional states, jealousy has no antonym in any human language. This is probably why the Kerista community—a San Francisco-based polygamous group that was disbanded in the early 1990s—coined the term “compersion” to refer to the emotional response opposite to jealousy. The Keristas defined compersion as “the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others you love share among themselves.” Since the term emerged in the context of the practice of “polyfideli-ty” (faithfulness to many), it encompassed sensuous and sexual joy, but compersion was only cultivated when a person had loving bonds with all parties involved. However, the feeling of compersion can also be extended to any situation in which our mate feels emotional/sensuous joy with others in wholesome and constructive ways. In these situations, we can rejoice in our partner’s joy even if we do not know the third parties. Experientially, compersion can be felt as a tangible presence in the heart whose awakening may be accompanied by waves of warmth, pleasure, and appreciation at the idea of our partner loving others and being loved by them in nonharmful and mutually beneficial ways. In this light, I suggest that compersion can be seen as a novel extension of sympathetic joy in the realm of intimate relationships, and particularly in interpersonal situations that conventionally evoke feelings of jealousy.

The reader acquainted with Vajrayana Buddhism may wonder whether such an extension is novel at all. Has not the transformation of jealousy into sympathetic joy been described in the tantric literature? Well, yes and no. In Vajrayana Buddhism, jealousy is considered an imperfection (klesha) associated with attachment and self-centeredness that is transmuted into sympathetic joy, equanimity, and wisdom by the power of the Lord of Karma, Amoghasiddhi, one of the Five Dhyani Buddhas (Buddhas we visualize in meditation). From the green body of Amoghasiddhi emanates his consort, the goddess Green Tara, who is said to also have the power of turning jealousy into the ability to dwell in the happiness of others.

At first sight, it may look as if the green gods and goddesses of the Buddhist pantheon have defeated the green-eyed monster of jealousy. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that this perception needs correction. The problem is that the Buddhist terms translated as “jealousy”—such as issa (Pali); phrag dog (Tibetan); or irshya (Sanskrit)—are more accurately read as “envy.” In the various Buddhist descriptions of “jealousy” we generally find illustrations of bitterness and resentment at the happiness, talents, or good fortune of others, but very rarely, if ever, of contracting fear and anger in response to a mate’s sexual or emotional connection to others. In the Abhid-hamma, for example, jealousy (issa) is considered an immoral mental state characterized by feelings of ill will at the success and prosperity of others. The description of the “jealous gods” realm (asura-loka) also supports this assertion. Though commonly called “jealous,” the asuras are said to be envious of the gods of the heaven realm (devas), and possessed by feelings of ambition, hatred, and paranoia.

Discussing the samsaric mandala, Chöögyam Trungpa writes in Orderly Chaos, “It is not exactly jealousy; we do not seem to have the proper term in the English language. It is a paranoid attitude of comparison rather than purely jealousy . . . a sense of competition.” As should be obvious, all of these descriptions refer to “envy”—defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “to feel displeasure and ill-will at the superiority of (another person) in happiness, success, reputation, or the possession of anything desirable”—and not to jealousy, which is a response to the real or imagined threat of losing one’s partner or valued relationship to a third party. Since Buddhist teachings about jealousy were originally aimed at monks who were not supposed to develop emotional attachments (even those who engaged in tantric sexual acts), the lack of systematic reflection in Buddhism upon romantic jealousy should not come as a surprise.

Let us explore now the implications of transforming jealousy in our intimate relationships. I suggest that the transformation of jealousy through the cultivation of sympathetic joy bolsters the awakening of the enlightened heart. As jealousy dissolves, universal compassion and unconditional love become more easily available to the individual. Human compassion is universal in its embrace of all sentient beings without qualifications. Human love is also all-inclusive and unconditional—a love that is both free from the tendency to possess and that does not expect anything in return. Although to love without conditions is generally easier in the case of brotherly and spiritual love, I suggest that as we heal the historical split between spiritual love (agape) and sensuous love (eros), the extension of sympathetic joy to more embodied forms of love becomes a natural development. And when embodied love is emancipated from possessiveness, a richer range of spiritually legitimate relationship options organically emerges. As people become more whole and are freed from certain basic fears (e.g. of abandonment, unworthiness, or engulfment), new possibilities for the expression of embodied love open up, which may feel natural, safe, and wholesome, rather than undesirable, threatening, or even morally questionable. For example, once jealousy turns into sympathetic joy, and sensuous and spiritual love are integrated, a couple may feel drawn to extend their love to other individuals beyond the structure of the pair bond. In short, once jealousy loosens its grip on the contemporary self, human love can attain a wider dimension of embodiment in our lives that may naturally lead to the mindful cultivation of more inclusive intimate connections.


Social Monogamy as a Mask for Biological Polyamory


Even if mindful and open, the inclusion of other loving connections in the context of a partnership can elicit the two classic objections to nonmonogamy (or polyamory): First, it does not work in practice; and second, it leads to the destruction of relationships. (I am leaving aside here the deeply engrained moral opposition to the very idea of polyamory associated with the legacy of Christianity in the West.) As for the first objection, though polygyny (“many wives”) is still culturally prevalent on the globe—out of 853 known human cultures, 84 percent permit polygyny—it seems undeniable that with a few exceptions, modern attempts at more gender-egalitarian and open relationships have not been very successful. Nevertheless, the same could be said about monogamy. After all, the history of monogamy is the history of adultery. As H. H. Munro wrote, monogamy is “the Western custom of one wife and hardly any mistresses.” Summing up the available evidence, David Buss estimates that “approximately 20 to 40 percent of American women and 30 to 50 percent of

American men have at least one affair over the course of their marriage,” and recent surveys suggest that the chance of either member of a modern couple committing infidelity at some point in their marriage may be as high as 76 percent—with these numbers increasing every year. Though most people in our culture consider themselves—and are believed to be—monogamous, anonymous surveys reveal that many are so socially, but not biologically.

In other words, social monogamy frequently masks biological polyamory in an increasingly significant number of couples. In her book Anatomy of Love, prominent anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests that the human desire for clandestine extramarital sex is genetically grounded in the evolutionary advantages that having other mates provided for both genders in ancestral times: extra opportunities to spread DNA for males, and extra protection and resources, plus the acquisition of potentially better sperm for females. It may also be important to note that the prevalent relationship paradigm in the modern West is no longer lifelong monogamy (“till death do us part”), but serial monogamy (many partners sequentially), often punctuated with adultery. Serial monogamy, plus clandestine adultery, is in many respects not too different from polyamory, except perhaps in that the latter is more honest, ethical, and arguably less harmful. In this context, the mindful exploration of polyamory may help in alleviating the suffering caused by the staggering number of clandestine affairs in our modern culture.

Furthermore, to disregard a potentially emancipatory cultural development because its early manifestations did not succeed may be unwise. Looking back at the history of emancipatory movements in the West—from feminism to the abolition of slavery to the gaining of civil rights by African Americans—we can see that the first waves of the Promethean impulse were frequently burdened with problems and distortions, which only later could be recognized and resolved. This is not the place to review this historical evidence, but to dismiss polyamory because of its previous failures may be equivalent to having written off feminism on the grounds that its first waves failed to reclaim genuine feminine values or free women from patriarchy (e.g. turning women into masculinized “superwomen” capable of succeeding in a patriarchal world).


Polyamory as a Path Toward Emotional and Spiritual Depth


But wait a moment. Dyadic relationships are already challenging enough. Why complicate them further by adding extra parties to the equation? From a spiritual standpoint, an intimate relationship can be viewed as a structure through which human beings can learn to express and receive love in many forms. Although I would hesitate to declare polyamory more spiritual or evolved than monogamy, it is clear that if a person has not mastered the lessons and challenges of the dyadic structure he or she may not be ready to take on the challenges of more complex forms of relationships. Therefore, the objection of impracticability may be valid in many cases.

The second common objection to polyamory is that it results in the dissolution of pair bonds. The rationale is that the intimate contact with others will increase the chances that one member of the couple will abandon the other and run off with a more appealing mate. This concern is understandable, but the fact is that people are having affairs, falling in love, and leaving their partners all the time in the context of monogamous vows. As we have seen, adultery goes hand in hand with monogamy, and lifelong monogamy has been mostly replaced with serial monogamy (or sequential polyamory) in our culture. Parenthetically, vows of lifelong monogamy create often unrealistic expectations that add suffering to the pain involved in the termination of any relationship—and one could also raise questions about the wholesomeness of the psychological needs for certainty and security that such vows normally meet. In any event, although it may sound counterintuitive at first, the threat of abandonment may be actually reduced in polyamory, since the loving bond that our partner may develop with another person does not necessarily mean that he or she must choose between them or us (or lie to us).

More positively, the new qualities and passions that novel intimate connections can awaken within a person can also bring a renewed sense of creative dynamism to the sexual/emotional life of the couple, whose frequent stagnation after three or four years (seven in some cases) is the chief cause of clandestine affairs and separation. As recent surveys show, the number of couples who successfully navigate the so-called four- and seven-year itches is decreasing every year. Mindful polyamory (i.e., practiced with the full knowledge and approval of all concerned) may also offer an alternative to the usually unfulfilling nature of currently prevalent serial monogamy in which people change partners every few years, never benefiting from the emotional and spiritual depth that only an enduring connection with another human being provides. In a context of psy-chospiritual growth, such exploration can create unique opportunities for the development of emotional maturity, the transmutation of jealousy into sympathetic joy, the emancipation of embodied love from exclusivity and possessiveness, and the integration of sensuous and spiritual love. As Christian mystic Richard of St. Victor maintains, mature love between lover and beloved naturally reaches beyond  itself toward a third reality, and this opening, I suggest, might in some cases be crucial both to overcome codependent tendencies and to foster the health, creative vitality, and perhaps even longevity of intimate relationships.

I should stress that my intent is not to argue for the superiority of any relationship style over others—a discussion I find both pointless and misleading. Human beings are endowed with widely diverse biological, psychological, and spiritual dispositions that predispose them toward different relationship styles: celibacy, monogamy, serial monogamy, or polyamory. In other words, many equally valid psychospiritual trajectories may call individuals to engage in one or another relationship style either  for life or at specific junctures in their paths. Whereas the psy-chospiritual foundation for this diversity of mating responses cannot be empirically established, recent discoveries in neuro-science support the idea of a genetic base. When scientists inserted a piece of DNA from a monogamous species of mice (prairie voles) into males from a different—and highly promiscuous—mice species, the latter turned fervently monogamous. What is more striking is that some people carry an extra bit of DNA in a gene responsible for the distribution of vasopressin receptors in the brain (a hormone associated with attachment bonds), while others do not, and that piece of DNA is very similar to the one found in the monogamous prairie voles. Although the implications of this finding for our understanding of human mating await further clarification, it strongly suggests that a diversity of relationship styles—both monogamous and polyamorous—may be genetically imprinted in humans.


Religious Decree on Sexual Behavior


I address the objections to polyamory because lifelong or serial monogamy (together with celibacy) are still widely considered the only or most “spiritually correct” relationship styles in the modern West. In addition to the traditional Christian prescription of lifelong monogamy, many influential contemporary Buddhist teachers in the West make similar recommendations. Consider, for example, Thich Nhat Hanh’s reading of the Buddhist precept of “refraining from sexual misconduct.” For the monks, this precept originally meant to avoid engaging in any sexual act whatsoever and; for lay people it was to not engage in a list of “inappropriate” sexual behaviors having to do with specific body parts, times, and places. In his book For a Future to Be Possible, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that the monks of his order follow the traditional celibate vow in order to use sexual energy as a catalyst for spiritual breakthrough. For lay practitioners, however, Thich Nhat Hanh reads the precept to mean avoiding all sexual contact unless it takes place in the context of a “long-term commitment between two people,” because there is an incompatibility between love and casual sex (monogamous marriage is a common practice for lay people in his order). In this reading, Thich Nhat Hanh reinterprets the Buddhist precept as a prescription for long-term monogamy, excluding the possibility of not only wholesome polyamorous relations, but also spiritually edifying intimate encounters. (It is important to note, however, that “long-term commitment” is not equivalent to “monogamy,” since it is perfectly feasible to hold a long-term commitment with more than one intimate partner.) In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama also assumes a monogamous structure as the container for appropriate sex in intimate relationships. Since reproduction is the biological purpose of sexual relations, he tells us, long-term commitment and sexual exclusivity are desirable for the wholesomeness of love relationships.

Despite the great respect I feel for these and other Buddhist teachers who speak in similar fashion, I must confess my perplexity. These assessments of appropriate sexual expression, which have become influential guidelines for many contemporary Western Buddhists, are often offered by celibate individuals whose sexual experience is likely to be limited, if not nonexistent. If there is anything we have learned from developmental psychology, it is that an individual needs to perform a number of “developmental tasks” to gain competence (and wisdom) in various arenas: cognitive, emotional, sexual, and so forth. Even when offered with the best of intentions, advice offered about aspects of life in which one has not achieved developmental competence through direct experience may be both questionable and misleading. When this advice is given by figures as culturally venerated as spiritual authorities, the situation can become even more problematic. What is more, in the context of spiritual prax-is, these assertions can arguably be seen as incongruent with the emphasis on direct knowledge characteristic of Buddhism.

It may be worth remembering that the Buddha himself encouraged polyamory over monogamy in certain situations. In the Jataka 200 (stories of Buddha’s former births), a Brahmin asks the Buddha for advice regarding four suitors who are courting his four daughters. The Brahmin says, “One was fine and handsome, one was old and well advanced in years, the third a man of family [noble birth], and the fourth was good.” “Even though there be beauty and the like qualities,” the Bud-dha answered, “a man is to be despised if he fails in virtue. Therefore the former is not the measure of a man; those that I like are the virtuous.” After hearing this, the Brahmin gave all his daughters to the virtuous suitor. 

As the Buddha’s advice illustrates, several forms of relationship may be spiritually wholesome (in the Buddhist sense of leading to liberation) according to various human dispositions and contextual situations. Historically, Buddhism hardly ever considered one relationship style intrinsically more wholesome than others for lay people and tended to support different relationship styles depending on cultural and karmic factors. From the Buddhist perspective of skillful means (upaya) and of the soteriological nature of Buddhist ethics, it also follows that the key factor in evaluating the appropriateness of any intimate connection may not be its form but rather its power to eradicate the suffering of self and others. There is much to learn today, I believe, from the nondogmatic and pragmatic approach of historical Buddhism to intimate relationships—an approach that was not attached to any specific relationship structure but was essentially guided by a radical emphasis on liberation.

As is well known, Judaism permitted and even encouraged polygyny (“many wives”) for centuries until Rabbeinu Gershom (c. 960-1028) enacted an edict against marrying more than one wife, unless allowed on special grounds by at least 100 rabbis from three different countries. Interestingly, Rav Yaakov Emden explains, the reason for the ban was not moral or spiritual, but social. The edict was a reaction to the danger that having more than one wife could bring to the Jews in a Europe increasingly dominated by Christianity, which had been trying to abolish polygamy from about 600CE to 900CE. In short, the purpose of the edict was to protect the Jewish people from being attacked or even killed by resentful Christian fundamentalists. Furthermore, according to most authorities, the ban was supposed to have validity only until the end of the fifth millennium of the Jewish calendar, so it never actually had the force of an edict (cherem) after the year 1240CE, though it continued as a custom in many places. (Originally, the prohibition was also limited geographically to certain European countries and regions.) If the Torah and the biblical law permitted polyamory, if the rationale for the prohibition was contextual, and if the validity of the edict was supposed to last only until the year 1240CE, then the current observance of the Cherem Rabbeinu Gershom seems unjustified. Of course, in light of the modern reconstruction of Judaism carried out by Rabbi Michael Lerner and others (see Lerner’s The Jewish Renewal), contemporary Jews may regard the traditional endorsement of polygyny  and prohibition of polyandry (“many husbands”) as a “sexist” trend of ancient Judaism and, consequently, may want to creatively explore more egalitarian forms of polyamory.

For a variety of evolutionary and historical reasons, polyamory has had “bad press” in Western culture and spiritual circles—being automatically linked, for example, with promiscuity, irresponsibility, inability to commit, and even narcissistic hedonism. Given the current crisis of monogamy in our culture, however, it may be valuable to explore seriously the social potential of responsible forms of nonmonogamy. And given the spiritual potential of such exploration, it may also be important to expand the range of spiritually legitimate relationship choices that we as individuals can make at the various karmic crossroads of our lives.


Beyond Monogamy and Polyamory


It is my hope that this essay opens avenues for dialogue and inquiry in spiritual circles about the transformation of intimate relationships. It is also my hope that it contributes to the extension of spiritual virtues, such as sympathetic joy, to all areas of life and in particular to those which, due to historical, cultural, and perhaps evolutionary reasons, have been traditionally excluded or overlooked—areas such as sexuality and romantic love.

The culturally prevalent belief—supported by many contemporary spiritual teachers—that the only spiritually correct sexual options are either celibacy or monogamy is a myth that may be causing unnecessary suffering and that needs, therefore, to be laid to rest. It may be perfectly plausible to hold simultaneously more than one loving or sexual bond in a context of mindfulness, ethical integrity, and spiritual growth, for example, while working toward the transformation of jealousy into sympathetic joy and the integration of sensuous and spiritual love. I should add right away that, ultimately, I believe that the greatest expression of spiritual freedom in intimate relationships does not lie in strictly sticking to any particular relationship style—whether monogamous or polyamorous—but rather in a radical openness to the dynamic unfolding of life that eludes any fixed or predetermined structure of relationships. It should be obvious, for example, that one can follow a specific relationship style for the “right” (e.g. life-enhancing) or “wrong” (e.g., fear-based) reasons; that all relationship styles can become equally limiting spiritual ideologies; and that different internal and external conditions may rightfully call us to engage in different relationship styles at various junctures of our lives. It is in this open space catalyzed by the movement beyond monogamy and polyamory, I believe, that an existential stance deeply attuned to the standpoint of Spirit can truly emerge.

Nevertheless, gaining awareness about the ancestral—and mostly obsolete—nature of the evolutionary impulses that direct our sexual/emotional responses and relationship choices may empower us to consciously co-create a future in which expanded forms of spiritual freedom may have a greater chance to bloom. Who knows, perhaps as we extend spiritual practice to intimate relationships, new petals of liberation will blossom that may not only emancipate our minds, hearts, and consciousness, but also our bodies and instinctive world. Can we envision an “integral bodhisattva vow” in which the conscious mind renounces full liberation until the body and the primary world can be free as well?

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