Sunday, March 4, 2012

6 Ways to Approach Lust and Monogamy

Jeff Bridges (who is a Buddhist and a big fan of Chogyam Trungpa) did an interview with Tricycle Magazine in 2010. He described how he develops intimacy with the actors he works with, which leads to convincing performances. He discussed how his wife allows him to develop these deep relationships and how there is no sex involved, because then it would just get weird.

This interests me because I've often had a sad feeling about being in a relationship, since it seems like you aren't supposed to be curious about or attracted to anyone other than your current partner. Inevitably, I have been curious, and often this feeling made me feel like I needed to put a leash on myself and nip the whole thing in the bud.

Loving relationships shouldn't be about feeling bad about your feelings. Buddhist teachers have told me things like, "you don't have to hide from your feelings." Fearing what you think and what you feel is no way to live a courageous and dignified life, however, committing to a monogamous relationship does require discipline and honesty.

There is nothing stopping you from sleeping with anyone that will have you, except your values. If you want to sleep around, it's not a problem as long as you let your partners know what you are all about. It's when you pretend to be honest and straightforward, but then cheat on your partner, which creates a cognitive dissonance and causes suffering.

Interacting with other humans offers endless opportunities to make decisions, which results in karma. So how do we build karma that leads to deep and honest relationships with our partners? How do we do this in the face of challenges, including our own insecurities and temptations that may lead to poor decisions?

There must be a way to know people, communicate deeply with them and be curious about their lives, without fearing your own lust. In fact, I believe that with some self awareness, honesty and discipline, this curiosity can be explored without the danger of unsanctioned, naked frolicking.

Here are a few Buddhist inspired reminders to consider on the path to developing a happy, monogamous relationship:

1. Know Your Own Mind
This is the crux of the Hinayana teachings. The Buddha first taught on how to be less of a nuisance to oneself and to others. One can do this by studying one's own mind, seeing the lust, greed, aggression and joy that comes out of it. The practice of studying your mind is sitting meditation. When you start meditating, your thoughts are like a waterfall, but eventually you will start to see your thoughts more clearly, as if you were watching drops of water falling in slow motion.

2. Don't Be Afraid of Your Feelings
The best part about studying your mind is that you don't have to be afraid of thoughts. After all, they are just thoughts. We can't be honest with others until we are honest with ourselves about our thoughts. When we feel curiosity or even sexual attraction for someone new, we can see it come up and then we can smile at it and let it go. There is no need to crush it, wave it away, or cower in terror. Just notice it.
Just before Buddha's enlightenment, Mara tempted
Buddha with his sexy daughters.

3. Be Kind to Yourself
When you are in a relationship and you get curious about someone other than your partner, it is common to have feelings of guilt or fear, or to think, "this isn't how it is supposed to be." That's bullshit. Give yourself a break, but be honest with yourself. If you feel like you can't get to know someone without it causing suffering, have the courage to step away from the situation. That also takes courage, and it is being kind to yourself and those you care about.

4. Appreciate What You Have Now
I should note that Buddhism is not the obvious wisdom tradition to turn to on the topic of lifelong sexual fidelity, because Buddhism explicitly recognizes that nothing is permanent. That logically includes marriage, but I don't think it is gloomy to recognize that all love relationships end in heartbreak. Impermanence is just a fact of being human, so we should get used to it and learn to appreciate every moment we have with the people we love. We should think about this all of the time and learn not to fear naked reality. This is a good first step towards having a deeply loving relationship with your partner, but also with everyone that enriches your life. By reminding yourself of the big picture, you are less likely to behave like nothing matters.

5. Be Present
Mindfulness training gives us the skills to avoid the trap of fantasizing about things that aren't real. We can easily muse about what could be if things were a little different, but that is a total waste of time. Things are the way they are right now. We look at an attractive person and we feel a little greedy. We think, "OK, I have an attractive partner, but I could have this other one that is more attractive." Once you start down this path, there is no end to the greed. When you catch yourself fantasizing, just stop and be present. Be with the person you are with. Feel what it feels like to be with that person. If it feels rotten, then maybe you need to take actions to fix this, but fantasizing about something that is not real won't help you build a happy, healthy relationship with this partner or the next. The only real thing is what you have at this very moment, so be present to that.

6. Practice Compassion
Buddhism offers techniques for practicing compassion. Metta, or loving kindness practice, is one such way to practice loving others. Just don't expect a compassion practice to work over night. This is a process of softening your heart and nurturing a raw spot in the cracks of your tender, aching heart. Practicing this or another compassion practice, such as Tonglen, on a regular basis will make you a different person. You can extend this to all the people of the world, or you can practice this on your partner. You can even practice it on yourself, but too much practice on oneself has been known to grow hair on your palms.


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