Posts Tagged ‘monogamy’

Are we really mono-poly?

In Too lazy to assign a category on March 16, 2008 at 9:04 pm

By Janet Kira Lessin, printed in Loving More Magazine #22, Spring 2000

Doctors Hal and Sidra Stone teach us that we have many "voices" within ourselves. We each have our own set of voices, be they the Inner Critic, the Inner Child, the Inner Pope, the Inner Aphrodite or any of a myriad possible combinations.

At different times these voices battle for dominance within us. We each have inner dichotomies — poles of opposition vying for the upper hand. The Inner Catholic conflicts with the Inner Atheist, for example.

Where we find ourselves in any given point in our existence, we tend to throw stones at our opposites. In life we tend to attract to us, to "hire" in a sense our "disowned selves." We see in others what we least like about ourselves. These "mirrors" act as a reflection to us of those parts we need to incorporate into our being, in order to feel whole and complete.

As we seek to come to complete integration of our many selves, or subpersonalities, we strive to come to our center, or as we say in voice dialogue, to develop an "aware ego". Many books have chronicled this search for enlightenment.

Two complete opposites, almost universally, are our Inner Monogamist and our Inner Polyamorist (loving more than one in an intimate relationship). Never before has there been such debate, especially in this Judeo/Christian culture. Why does it seem that so many polyamorists are attracted to and marry so many monogamists and vice versa? If we were to imagine the center for this dichotomy, what would we find? Could it be a combination of the best of both worlds, that which I refer to as Mono-Poly?

As we observe the world around us, it doesn't appear that mankind is truly monogamous; with our incredible divorce rate that is rapidly heading towards sixty-five percentile for us "baby boomers". That's not counting our infidelity rate, which is staggering. Add on top of that the "happiness factor", those who stay together only because of the kids, the bills, the family, habit, etc. and the figures really get alarming. What's going on here?

Despite all of the above, it does appear that we humans do tend to "pair bond". Even at the east and west poly conferences last year, it was observable; twos seeking three, couples seeking couples, even those "expanded group marriages" within them appeared to have groupings, two by two! Lets now examine the pros of each lifestyle.

With monogamy, one can embrace the creation; man/woman, Adam/Eve, two by two, the dyad, romanticism. Many find it fashionable to trounce romanticism, but face it; romance is fun! It gives one that chemical rush, that "high" of a new love, NRE (New Relationship Energy)!

Monogamy reinforces the security of a stable home, Mom and Dad, someone we can turn to in thick and thin, loyalty, commitment, our "best friend". Monogamy provides that special someone to whom you can confess your deepest, darkest secrets; that person with whom you have that "special" something that only you two know and share.

Monogamy resonates the feeling the feeling of forever, security, safety, warm fuzzies. It provides that person to whom you return when your poly adventures turn sour and they "dump" you.

Spiritually it resembles "the split-apart", the "twin flame", symbolized in the yin/yang. The twin flame is that one special person that for some inexplicable reason you feel this incredible bond that transcends time and space. When you meet that person, it bowls you over. You connect, not just on one or two chakras, but on all chakras. You realize how you never really completely connected with anyone else before and if they left, you would never go this deep ever again. It is a merging; a oneness with Man/Woman/God/Goddess/Universe.

Historically, says Dr. Helen Fisher (Anatomy of Love, Norton: 1992), monogamy insured at least two people stayed together and committed to their child's survival; staying together until he was "weaned" and somewhat self-sufficient before parting (about 4 years).

Now that we've shown the virtues of monogamy, what possibly are the the pros of polyamory?

Obviously the first thing is "variety is the spice of life".  In polyamory we have sexual variety, which is very exciting and attractive to many of us. We also have more than one person with whom do things with, so one person is not trying to meet all of our "needs", which is virtually impossible.

In polyamory, one has many mirrors in which to reflect; many points of view in which to learn and grow. In a poly household, there are many hands to accomplish tasks, to pull resources together.

Polyamory resonates the security of the "tribe"; the memory of which resides deep within many of us. With numerous to defend the women and children and assure their survival, the survival of the tribe, the children and continuance was assured against predators and foes.

As souls we appear to be created in soul groups that find one another lifetime after lifetime. We have many "soul mates" that we have loved through many lifetimes; that we have loved in various fashions time and again. As souls we know that we have an endless, boundless capacity to love. Polyamory brings our natural state of loving oneness and that ability to love all into the physical.

Statistically it appears that our marriages and dyadic relationships seem to last on the average of 3.5 to 4 years. Currently there are no real statistics available on poly relationships. We can only speculate as many remain hidden to protect their lifestyles and their families.

In my poly group, I have seen first hand the trials and tribulations of loving more than one. It is certainly not an easy path to undertake, no easier than monogamy, it appears. Broken hearts happen here as well.

Recently, I heard one staggering statistic from a local Hawaii talk show host, Kevin Hughes, which made me stand up and take notice. He said that swingers stay married on the average of 23 years! Wait a minute… 23 years! Let's take a look at that one! So I did.

I had noticed in conversations on the Internet that there are many who define themselves as "swingers" who are actually couples seeking other couples with whom to love. They just don't have any other models. They've never heard the vocabulary. Perhaps they really are poly?

I had noticed that I myself had been passing judgement and throwing stones at swingers, if only to myself. I wanted to observe things first hand, see what was really going on. So, I asked my husband, Sasha, if he wanted to check out one of the swinger's parties. After some debate, we decided the best course of action was to open up invite the local swingers organization to have a party at our house. This way, we would be able to make the most scientifically accurate observations. With some reservations and much anticipation, the party began.

What we discovered from our party is that swingers traditionally do not allow any single men in their functions. Parties are strictly couples with once in a while the occasional single woman, who is usually bisexual.

They do what I call "inclusionary lovemaking". One man told me, "I would never imagine going somewhere and making it with anyone without my wife. We are a matched set. Love me, love my dog".

In swinging, there doesn't appear to be any "mini-monoging; that little mini-affair away from home, discreet, unseen, separate from one another. Swingers seem to love together, in parties, with another couple, in the same room, or out of the room but not very far out of site from one another. They always remain connected in some way; sensing each other; feeling each other. Rather sweet, huh?

I'm not advocating that swinging is "THE MODEL" for all of the world. It is just that I no longer throw stones at them and I'm now taking a deeper look. I see the love. Many swingers develop lifelong friendships with those whom they engage in sexual play.

One thing to notice is that there are only about 200 in attendance at each poly conference each year where there are more than 3,000 who attend the Lifestyles Conference for the whole time with approximately 10,000 additional attendees for the daily events attending the workshops visiting booths and exhibitions.

I feel that, in the final analysis, we act from "choice." Even if we define ourselves as belonging to one relationship type, it appears that life throws a wrench at you; someone comes into your life; you respond with love; and soon you find yourself somewhere else along the continuum. After all, the only thing constant in life is change.

Perhaps that's truly what Hal and Sidra Stone talk about when they speak of centering oneself and the "dance of the selves" as the path to awareness and wholeness in life.

As we seem to go from lifetime to lifetime experiencing being every religion, race, color and creed, we find within our soul group that we have experienced being every imaginable configuration of friends, family and lovers. We do this dance time and again, hurting and being hurt, until one day we, find that we have completed all karma, our soul group reunites in bliss and we return home to "go out no more". Bless free will. Enjoy the adventure.

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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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