Last month, I had the chance to attend a retreat at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Germany. It happened to be amidst a lot of changes happening in my life—perhaps the biggest among them relating to how I view sex.
A couple of weeks before coming to the EIAB, I was contemplating the Third Mindfulness Training in particular. My relationship with this training has been especially tumultuous. Sexuality has played a huge part of my life since I was eighteen. Over the course of my retreat, I spent a lot of time looking back at my experiences with casual sex and how it has affected my life.
I discovered a pattern: whenever my mindfulness practice was at its strongest, I wasn’t meeting people just for sex. Whenever my mindfulness practice was at its most dispersed, I was meeting several people for casual sex and sometimes not even having a conversation beforehand: hardly a “true love and deep, long-term commitment made known to family and friends.” I was hoping I would discover that the training was exaggerated, that I was right, and that all this casual sex was great for my mindfulness practice. Womp womp for me. The truth can be so terribly inconvenient to my cravings and desires.
That being said, I think there are alternative wordings and interpretations of the Third Mindfulness Training that would be beneficial in cultivating more openness and non-attachment to views about sexual energy. Of course, I understand that we are not meant to interpret the trainings as dogma or law set in stone. But words are very powerful, and they could help provide even more insight. When I say casual sex, I am referring to meeting someone specifically for the purpose of sexual gratification. I will admit this has not always brought me extreme suffering, but the trouble with this is you don’t understand the person other than through their sexual desires. You don’t know very much about their pain, their joy, or their life situation.
With that in mind, I do not believe that the Third Mindfulness Training requires a monogamous, romantic, “one true love” commitment to your sexual partners. Being an actor who travels a lot, I have had friends with whom I have shared sexual relations with, and we were neither monogamous nor romantically entwined. However, what made those relationships different and in alignment with my practice was the existence of care and the cultivation of the qualities of true love. While long-term may have meant only being together physically for a couple months, this didn’t cheapen our care about each other in the present moment, and that love continues into the present moment, even if we do not play a large role in each others’ lives anymore.
Because of these experiences, I believe the following sentence could use an alternative word: “Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others…” I think the word “always” used here is not completely accurate. Though perhaps when the phrase refers to craving, it is referring to a specific kind of energy that is different and more out-of-control than a more clinical idea of craving.
Craving is a tricky topic, and it is up for different interpretations. Biologically, craving is what propels our species forward through craving for food, water, companionship, and sex, but when it controls us, it brings us great suffering. I think the Buddhist understanding of craving often refers to the kind of strong desires that make it hard to be mindful and loving versus natural urges that keep us happy and healthy.
And even more confusing is that sex lies in a middle ground of not always harmful, sometimes wonderful, but not necessary for our happiness (as from my experience, the happiest people I’ve ever met are monks and nuns.) We can all agree that when you are hungry, it is okay to eat some food with an understanding of what will be nourishing to your body. I feel cravings for sex can sometimes be similar to a certain degree, and a loving, caring partner is someone whom you entrust with your strong desires. When we feel a deep desire for love on a physical level, we must be very mindful though since these energies can quickly become the craving that causes us to act against our deep volitions; however, when you are sharing with someone whom you care deeply about and trust, I do not think it will always cause harm. I think the word “often harms” or “can easily harm” better reflects my own truth, and I imagine many others as well.
Then we get to the second half of that sentence. “I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to family and friends.” Like I said earlier, I was hoping my reflections would lead me to confirm my thought that this must be an extreme vow! I was wrong. I do, however, interpret it a bit more loosely. I often say “the elements of true love” instead of just “true love” to help me remember that true love isn’t something that is either present completely or absent completely. True love is made of always changing, non-true-love elements.
When it comes to “true love,” I imagine a lot of westerners—Americans in particular—will think of a Disney movie or some sort of amazing monogamous romantic explosion of love, care, and cuddling. For me, it’s a little simpler. When I see the words true love, I see the four elements that create it: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity/inclusiveness. If I share these qualities with a person, I feel there is a natural commitment to each others’ well-being that is deep.
Because of this, I don’t think romance or monogamy need to be involved, though I do think those things are awesome for a lot of people when used in combination with the four elements of true love. I have many friends who have wonderful relationships: some of whom are monogamous, others who aren’t. Some love the more romantic aspect of their relationship in the traditional westernized sense, and others prefer a more grounded approach. When I see people thriving in relationships, the common denominator is always the loving kindness and compassion the two partners share. Everything else depends on how the individuals feel and express love in their own unique way.
I also don’t think long-term has to mean that we’re committed to having sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. I think it means that our hearts are going to remain open to each other even after our sexual relations end. We aren’t going to use or exploit each other for our own greed, but we are going to trust each other with the powerful energy that is our sexual desire.
This has become my own middle way over the last couple of months. Ask me again in a year, and I’ll probably give you a different answer. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll even see me sporting a brown robe with a shaved head… 😉
Very interesting. Dealing with sexual energy is one of the most difficult part of mindfulness in my opinion. I agree that there many middle ways and that each of us should interpret the mindfulness practices in a way that we see fit but personally I find that real friendships are hard to develop in these days and when you are lucky enough to have sexual relations with a true friend it is a rare experience of closeness and it can even be very meditative if both sides are very connected to each other. It took me a lot of time to understand this and though I’m not saying its impossible to experience this with multiple partners I do think that this level of closeness is a result of a lot of work and communication with your partner in a way that doesn’t really leave time and energy for anyone else (:
Hi Idan! Thank you for your comment. I agree that the amount of effort required to help those elements of love grow is great, and I think for many people one partner is definitely all their hearts desire/have energy for. I have met some people, though, who seem to have a natural knack for communicating and making time for people, and they are able to care for multiple partnerships at the same time. I personally have found that usually one partner is all I really want/need, but I have been in different circumstances in my life where that was not the case.
Interesting read. It is because of certain sentences in the 5 trainings that I have not taken the vow for myself. Like you say, words are powerful, and some words leave little room for a different interpretation (for example ‘no alcohol’ I cannot read as ‘only a little alcohol in a mindful way when it’s not to hide some discomfort’ because the words are so definite). I totally stand behind the general message and spirit of the trainings and they inspire me, just as the wake-up community does. But I’ve always been very true to my own word so I can’t commit to something if I have to change the words first. This is my experience, I was just wondering if you took on the trainings despite the changes you feel like making in them, and how you view this?
Hi Lotus! Thank you for your sharing. I actually initially took the Five Mindfulness Trainings when I was 17, and was not yet sexually active. The last five years have led me through the spectrum, from completely disregarding the training to taking it word for word. To be honest, when I was first preparing this sharing I was very adamant about rewording some of the sentences, but over the course of the last couple of months I have been reciting the trainings every Monday and I have seen new perspectives of the same words. I think many people would look at the relationships I have with my sexual partners and would not consider the commitment “deep” or the love “true,” but I personally look beyond the poeticism of certain phrasing to adapt it to my own perspective, while also remaining open to being changed by the trainings over time.
The fifth mindfulness training is certainly the hardest one for many people I have met, whether it’s because they enjoy drinking beer every once in a while, they smoke marijuana and are not harmed by it, etc. That one is especially tricky. The roots for the Five Mindfulness Trainings are the five precepts the historical buddha was said to offer laypeople. They were much shorter than the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I believe they were something like “don’t harm living things, don’t steal, don’t engage in sexual misconduct, don’t lie, don’t ingest intoxicating substances.” But even through a loose interpretation of the last one, it seems pretty clear that he was talking about alcohol (although if anyone reading this disagrees please open my mind!!!!!), and I understand not wanting to commit to something that you can’t be 100% with. I don’t drink, and I think if I did I would have a lot harder time making a public commitment to the trainings versus my relationship with sex, but I do know several people who have taken the Five Trainings who do occasionally drink, and if anyone reading is someone in this situation, we would love to hear your story!
Thank you so much! You put into words a lot of my discomfort with the third mindfulness training. I took the mindfulness trainings myself, and only afterwards did life make me question the absolute necessity of monogamy and a long-term commitment; ironically when my practice deepened and I felt more and more love with less attachment and craving. It seemed counterintuitive to then place requirements that felt arbitrary on expressions of that love.
I’m still working on my own understanding of this, being very careful not to just pick what I like and discard the rest. But I agree with you, when you talk about focusing on “true love” as the 4 elements and also with “long-term commitment” meaning “that our hearts are going to remain open to each other even after our sexual relations end.”
I feel like it’s a lot about intent: any interaction with someone else should come from a place of love and an honest intention of kindness and giving. Sexual activity is very intimate, but in the end, it’s just one of the ways we have of engaging with other people, not totally unlike talking or hugging, which can be both superficial or very deep practices. However, because sexual activity has the potential for such enormous consequences very quickly and easily, because we are very vulnerable and we are in a world that definitely advertises sex as something to be obtained and not as much shared or given, we DO need to be extra careful when we engage in those activities and really stay honest with ourselves. Do I honestly care about this person’s well-being? Do I really understand that I am engaging with a human being with fears, emotions, dreams?
With deep respect to Thay’s teachings 🙂 I am still but a beginner!
Hi Simon! I am so happy that the sharing resonated with you. I totally understand the thought of traditional ideas of romanticism and monogamy disappearing through a strong mindfulness practice, which can be so odd/new/confusing/exciting when that person is still sexually active! I also agree that it is so incredibly important to be careful with this energy, as it can so easily overcome the energies of love, and while of course it’s all about finding a balance between sexual energy and the energies of kindness, compassion, joy, etc., I know for me personally when the sexual energy outweighs everything else I almost always lose my mindfulness/presence with the other person.
“any interaction with someone else should come from a place of love and an honest intention of kindness and giving.”
and this:”Do I honestly care about this person’s well-being? Do I really understand that I am engaging with a human being with fears, emotions, dreams?”
..are very well said. Thank you.
My own learning:
1. Stay away of external influence: how the media, society, your peers want you to think about romance and sexuality. I come from Asia, I guess the pressure is a bit less here to be highly sexually accomplished 😀
2. Understand that there is no separation between mind and body. Love and sexual intimacy go together. Being mindful reduces craving.
Beautiful article, thank you. The third training is my favorite and for me has been a sort of life song. It is one thing to take the trainings and quite another to receive them. Maybe it is a use of words and/or maybe it is a quality and attitude that effects our perception and the impact of the trainings on our lives and the impact of our lives on the trainings.
Hi True Lotus Concentration. I love your (dharma) name. Mine is Inclusive Aspiration of the Heart. I love the idea of the trainings as a life song. I know over the past few months I have given up many toxic habits, and the idea of taking refuge in the trainings has really helped at times. I also love your idea that it is a two way street. The trainings absolutely impact my life, and my life in turn impacts the way I view and implement the trainings. It’s so wonderful that we practice a tradition that values open-mindedness to many different paths to happiness and true love!
Hi everyone! Did only guys answer so far? I’ve read your comments and I would like to add my humble (?) opinion. What I experienced so far is that all the men I know seem convinced that it can be done, casual sex with friends/lover, without the monogamy and they quite enjoyed it and felt as if life was good. All the women I met, told me that they were suffering from it, many of them only engaging in it because they hoped a long-term monogamous relationship would develop from it and none of them actually telling their partner about this, because they didn’t wanna seem “desperate” or “dependant”…sooo that’s one thing. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook (where I saw the article initially):
What’s difficult here is: even if the author says he doesn’t suffer when he engages in casual encounters, once they are casual how do you know and make sure that the partner isn’t suffering? What do you do if they feel fine right now but the encounter with you makes them suffer a week later? You might not be there to take care of them, and I think if they trust you enough to share their body with you, you owe them some kind of aftercare. You might have moved on to someone else by that time and will be hesitant to address and react their suffering accordingly. What if you have a regular casual relationship with a person you see as just that, a casual encounter, but their motivation to be intimate with you is because they hope it to become a monogamous relationship? They hope you fall in love. Of course you are not really responsible for their wishing and dreaming, but you are responsible for the pain you cause others, especially if they are giving you joy. I’ve come to the conclusion that the safest, most responsible way is indeed to only participate in monogamous, loving, long-term commitment. We should take the responsibility we have serious, because you can harm your partner a lot through sexuality and especially if they are not practicing mindfulness and metta, so they might not be able to help themselves accordingly. I have experienced, that people expect you to treat them more carefully and not hurt them if they know you are buddhist, and although that’s just their thinking, I like to at least try to look out for others. I’m not saying a casual encounter isn’t possible. I would just not be as breezy about it, because it is actually more difficult and takes more mindfulness maybe than a long-term commitment to just one partner. It definitely needs honest and open communication from the start and from all parties involved and there’s zero room for ego and selfishness. And I think everyone should make up their mind to why they’d prefer casual sex over a monogamous long-term relationship or the other way round -no judging here, just be honest with yourself and know what you really want and why, because only then can you be truthfully honest with the other person/s.
Also, from the bottom of my heart and with all my love; most STD’s are on the rise again and even safe sex (aka condoms and barriers) won’t guarantee you absolute protection. The risk of transmitting such a disease is much higher the more partners one has (unfortunately often used to stigmatize people with STDs)and lower in monogamous couples. Now imagine you had Clamydia- men usually have almost no symptoms and don’t notice it, you pass it on to the women you sleep with and they don’t get any symptoms either (it can happen too in women) but Clamydia if untreated can lead to infertility. Now, isn’t this harming someone in a very hurtful and tragic way? For me it would be. So please, at least get checked for all STDs (plus Hep C) regularly. Thanks and thank you for reading all of this! <3
What do you think?
About your last paragraph : I think you’re completely right to remind everyone of the existence of STDs and all the work that still needs to be done to prevent them, nevertheless I have to confess I’m not very comfortable with the way you implicitely relate this to your own ethical preferences. I mean, as far as we discuss health, a standard health professional would clearly not allow himself/herself to recommand his/her patients to have only long-term relationships because of STDs, even for the sake of them, but rather he would give clear information about them so that they can make informed choices that respect their freedom and sense of responsibility. In particular, information about their prevalence (less than 1/1.000 in Europe for most STIs, more in the US) and the best ways to prevent them, or even treat them in the sad case of an infection. It’s true that having multiple partners is a mathematical risk factor, but not using a condom certainly is a more decisive one, and being in a monogamous relationship doesn’t put you at zero risk either, see for example this study : http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsm.12987/abstract. So the way you prioritize things in your words, again, leaves me with a little discomfort. I strongly believe stress should be put on responsible behaviors (eg. using condoms until you’re tested), but I would say it may cause more harm than good to be excessive, and for that reason tend to make people guilty or ashamed of themselves if they don’t have sex in a long-term relationship. (what some religious traditions or social codes may have, sadly, encouraged in the past)
Thank you for sharing your experience. I am so happy that you have discovered what works best for you. I personally am a gay man, so my experience has only been with other men. I do, however, have several female friends who actively pursue casual sexual relationships and have no desire for monogamy (I can think of at least five wonderful women just off the top of my head). All of them are very happy with their choice, and they go about in an ethical, compassionate way. I thought I’d let you know that so you can be aware that there are indeed women who enjoy non-monogamous sexual encounters 🙂
I think it’s important to take some time to get to know someone when sexual energy isn’t present, both before and after you have a sexual encounter. I think it is absolutely the compassionate thing to do to be an available resource to your partner afterwards, and I love the term “aftercare,” because it is true that sometimes sexual experiences plant seeds in our consciousness that only sprout later, and I know personally once I re-committed myself to the Third Mindfulness Training I have made sure to be available to my partners afterwards for this very reason.
One thing to think about is the two-way street of communication. It’s something we all are constantly finding a new balance with, because every single relationship has a unique and always-evolving way of communicating. What came to mind when you talked about some of your friends engaging in casual relationships with the hope of it evolving into monogamy, were the four phrases that Thay uses to help engage effectively with your partners. Particularly “Dear one, I am suffering. I need your help.”
Thay challenges us to be open and compassionate in our communication. If a partner expressed his or her desire for a casual relationship honestly and openly, I don’t see why anyone would stay or remain silent if they wanted something else. It doesn’t seem to be the compassionate choice for either parties to withhold pertinent information about our sexual and romantic volition. I think in this case we can be aware of people’s words and feelings, but if the partner does not express them, how are we to know we are causing harm?
I also truly feel as though many of these situations can apply to a married couple or two partners in a monogamous relationship as well. Communication is a challenge no matter what. What if two married partners want separate things sexually but are unable to express themselves and are suffering greatly, while two friends who have non-monogamous sexual encounters have a policy of full disclosure, and they are happy and thriving? Maybe on paper the former is acting more in the spirit of the Third training because of their monogamy, but I do not look at the world on paper 😉 I look more at how the elements of true love are present in every moment, and how I can cultivate more of those qualities with everyone I encounter, sexual or otherwise.
Thank you again for sharing what works for you!! I am truly happy you have found a path for your own sexual health.
Thank you very much for sharing your views and initiating these open discussions ! I believe it’s very important to be able to talk about this intimate subject on a public PV website like this one and, indeed, take some perspective on it.
I would define myself as a very gentle and respectful person when it comes to relationships, very ethically engaged otherwise (especially with effective altruism – global poverty and animal welfare), yet I don’t subscribe either to the exact words of the third training.
I have the feeling there’s a cultural/traditional and (like you said) definite dimension in it that doesn’t make it perfectly universal. For me it’s important to reason on ethics like any other subject, with clear arguments and evidence. So I think it helps to remind that what should be called ethically “wrong” is, basically, what harms others, and “good” what benefits others. This being said, I have to admit I don’t see what is wrong about the casual relationship of two free adults, especially when we experience that (like you said) this kind of relationship may be tender and respectful. I like to compare it to friendship : of course, many of us may have the ideal of a very deep and exclusive friendship with someone, but does that make simpler friendships “wrong”, because they’re less profound ? I mean, sometimes we enjoy sharing very simple and human things with someone (including intimacy if we both feel like it), even if we know that our life projects and so our ideal for a long-term relationship are different. Does that make this experience necessarily “wrong” ? I really don’t believe so. I even think that these “imperfect” relationships very often are a good way to know oneself better, to better understand the dynamics of human relationships and so to grow as a human being. People who refrain from committing because they want to wait for the “good one” certainly have the best intentions but I’m not sure they necessarily make, concretely, the most lucid choices. So I would not absolutely recommend to a person I care for, as an intangible ethical guide, a rule which risks provoking these difficulties.
My personal feeling is that the kind of love that is described by the training as an ideal is beautiful but the means described to live it are far too definite, and even potentially dangerous if followed blindly. Ethics are always contextual. And “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” (Augustine)
It’s very understandable that monastics have to endorse a certain code of morals because of their personal life choice, but I think it’s an error to implicitly believe that there’s only one ideal ethical path in life, “perfectly” set by the 200 rules of the monastic code, the 14 rules of the Inter-Being Order and the 5 Mindfulness Trainings being seen as “weaker” and more appliable versions of the same ideal. Especially regarding sexuality I think it’s very important to acknowledge the diversity and potential creativity of individual ethical paths, if we don’t want to fall into dogmatism. Sexuality may be a pure and beautiful field of experience if we chose to live it fully, and we shouldn’t fear or be ashamed of it so much (like it seems to be the case, sadly, in many religious traditions).
Thank you so much for sharing. I think you and I view things very similarly in this regard 😉 I know for me I am often a perfectionist, and so my relationship with the Third training felt incomplete when I wasn’t following it to the letter, so I especially love the Augustine quote you mentioned. I think it’s good to disagree just a little bit with every tradition, ours included, so that we never become complacent or dogmatic. That was one thing that drew me to Buddhism in the first place: the absolute necessity of personal experience and understanding. We are not supposed to follow a precept because the Buddha says so, but rather discover for ourselves what brings us and our community more benefit, and what causes more harm. I think I will always have a little bit of “loose interpretation” of this training, but I really do believe I am acting in the spirit of avoiding sexual misconduct, and because of that can still benefit from my commitment to it.
It’s so great to hear from a fellow practitioner who wants to give life to the spirit instead of the letter 😉
This is a beautiful article. Whether from Emma Watson till the ordinary secular man on the streets, there is anything loving and everything peaceful that we can and may do for the ladies. Over these years apart from being supportive of the Thay’s teachings as well as exploring roles in making female monasticism possible and sustainable, there has been many White Ribbon projects in developed countries whether the White Ribbon Alliance in the United States or the White Ribbon projects of Australia and New Zealand that I am committed to. In a way I have practically gone fully non-intimate physically with the ladies as I practise continence as well as the Third Mindfulness Training, at times I cannot even remember what sexual intimacy might have been, not that I recall being a full time husband or a father this life either. I am against marital rape, and here in Singapore we have been reviewing laws that can abandon violence whether before, during or after marriage. Apart from updating our Women’s Charter last year in protecting vulnerables such as women and children, we are also looking at honouring and supporting the aspirations of women in the years ahead as we have always strived towards. Our women belong anywhere and everywhere on our Planet Earth. As long as we are mammals and homo sapiens, we should strive to make this world a more inclusive abet somewhat insecure refuge for all of us, women and girls inclusive. Namo Buddhaya. Namo Dharmaya. Namo Sanghaya.
Non-monogamous and intentionally temporary types of sexual relationship can be done with mutual care and honesty and long-term commitments can be very destructive depending on the circumstances. So, we can’t delineate one as inherently and absolutely better. So I think non-harm and the four elements that I’ll loosely translate into partial definitions as human warmth, skillful tenderness for human pains , encouragement in joy and growth, and non-judgement are bigger factors. I have in my younger years experimented with a combination of committed and non-committed sexual connections. At this point in my life I see a lot of value in long term commitment though, for me I prefer a partner on the path and in life to share my sexuality exclusively with, because I find joy and opportunities to grow spiritually in that. I value the depth, stability, and evolution of closeness that comes with that kind of relationship. As a single parent I also desire a stable family dynamic for my kids and see the difficulty brought about for them and myself and my previous partner with the loss of that commitment. I’ve learned that expecting guarantees is not the same as setting clear intentions and commitments and that there are times when separation is the wiser, more compassionate choice. But I still choose to aim for deep and long lasting partnership and the desire to return to the intention to offer our best to each other again and again. I also feel that when that kind of partnership is not available I have several deep friendships without sexual intimacy that meet and satisfy my needs for emotional connection and support. My aspiration is to not depend on a sexual relationship(s) for my sense of well being, happiness, or meaning, while at the same time honoring my deep human instincts and the specific elements of cultural heritage that I have through my own understanding decided to embrace (while there are some I have chosen not to embrace). I do not claim to suggest that anyone follow the same path as me. We all have different temperaments and circumstances and need to bring our authentic selves to the practice to grow.
Thank you all for sharing your unique perspectives. And for allowing me space to express mine. All our experiences can contribute to the collective understanding of the complexity of human life and how we can develop skillful and kind ways of engaging in the world. A lotus to you Buddhas to be!