And off to the races we go!

First off: Brad Warner has a new book out, called Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between.  No, I haven't read it yet.  I was sent an advanced promo for it of a few chapters by someone with a link to the publisher, but it was of a few of the "dryer" chapters.  Regardless, I'll read it soon.  Also regardless, buy the book, y'all.  Brad-san needs the dough, and I want him to have it.  Brad is one of the few contemporary Zen writers in America that's actually saying something relevant and interesting, and as aggravating as he is to me sometimes, I think that his approach is not only valuable, but inherently important to Zen in the West.  Props, Brad.  Actually, I'll probably post a review of the book once I've digested it, so stay tuned...

Let's begin at the beginning.

I am not average.

That is not a boast.  It is a statement of statistical observation.  I am a 42-year old male (that bit is average), queer (latently bisexual) ethically non-monogamous (read: "polyamorous") agnostic, former-vegan, leftist/socialist libertarian (minus the gun craziness, but with added crispy anarchistic tendencies) Zen Buddhist who believes in the inherent, constitutional right of gays to marry, is a pro-cannabis advocate and thinks most drugs should be legalized, as should prostitution.

So I confused the census guy a wee bit.  But he seemed really happy to see me the 2nd and 3rd time he was by here.  I was obviously a fun compare/contrast from the Jehova's next door.  And while he may have been a bit perplexed that my mailing address wasn't actually--in fact--Amsterdam, he understood why Portland seemed not so unbelievable.

I've been of the "alt" generation my entire adult life.  For a time in the late 80's, I was actually a safe sex educator to certain communities; a time when friends and loved ones started dying.  To say "I was on the front lines" of the HIV/AIDS fight is a bit of an over-statement that I'm not entirely comfortable with, but I will say proudly that I did my part to help educate gays, lesbians, and straight folks--both friends and strangers alike--so as to help keep them from becoming one more statistical data-point in a war with an increasingly growing body-count.

And yes, I lost people I loved.  Too many.

My fist "adult relationship" was when I was seventeen.  I don't really want to go too deeply into it, but it was more formative than I think I realized then.  And it was a non-monogamous one.  My first.  Not hers.  I'd heard about "swingers" in the likes of the Penthouse Forum and Xaviera Hollander's "Call Me Madam" column, but while that was titillating, it just didn't seem to fit my experience.  My partner at the time, (I'll call her "RDL") was a bit older, vastly more experienced and much wiser than I was at the time.  She was my first great teacher of love, sex, and of compassion.  Great Compassion.  She was a care-giver of the first order, an angel, a true Bodhisattva, I'm certain of that.  I'll never forget when we sat down to talk about "opening" our relationship.  "How can you love more than one person at a time?" I asked her in mild horror.

"Do you love your mother and your father?" she replied.

"Well, of course, but that's different!" I exclaimed.

"Really?  How?"

I waxed intensely on the topic, covering all the obvious points, including a detour down the predictable Freudian tangent.  When I was done having my emotional and intellectual grand mal, she sat there quietly, then said "Okay.  Now open your heart and tell me how it's really different."

I couldn't.

And I couldn't not because it wasn't different (because to some degrees it obviously is and I'm fine with admitting that) but because I suddenly allowed myself--for whatever reason--to truly wonder why it was, and then very quickly I was forced to ask myself if it was, in fact, all that different.  Was I simply tripping over a language issue?  I mean, the most complicated and nuanced words I knew at the time to try and differentiate one kind of love from another were words like αγάπη ("agape") or "trancendant, 'otherly' love", but no words seemed to work properly.  I told RDL that I'd have to think about this.  I left the discussion shaken, but oddly charged, and I didn't know why.

After a lot of soul-searching, I agreed that RDL and I would open our relationship.  In my mind, this was mostly a sexual thing, and I'll admit that I did it mostly to please her and at the same time hedge my bets against giving her any kind of reason to dump me.  But I did have her assurance that if at any time I felt uncomfortable or threatened by this path, I could hit the stop button.  Being that I trusted her both implicitly and explicitly, I felt that this was at least some kind of wild experiment that I had some manner of control over.

The following 18-or-so months was one of the weirdest, most wonderful and at times most painful periods of my life.  I never felt comfortable with telling even my closest friends about my life that they couldn't see.  Some of my friends were privy to my "sexual adventurousness", but none knew that this involved more than just me and a few people in bed together.  No one but my mother--my closest confidant--ever knew that it involved concurrent heart-based relationships with people.  I had a number of relationships with women in that period, with RDL being my overriding constant.

It was right about that time that we heard a new term.  Actually, I'd discovered it in a magazine.  It may have been Omni.  This word was "polyamory".  And while I--a growing word geek--bristled at the bastardization, it sure seemed to fit what we were doing in our lives.

But it seemed to be working.  And it seemed to fit me.  I had always been a big-hearted guy.  I'd always had much love to give.  And in that period of time when I walked away from RDL to "think about this", one thing popped into my mind over and over: I loved RDL, deeply and truly, and I wanted her, and "us" to be happy.  Forever.  But was I really ready to commit myself--my heart--to one person for the rest of my life?  Forsaking all others?  'Till death, etc?  Was it truly reasonable to think that, on a planet of billions of people, the one great love of my life just happened to be living one town over from me?  Was there really only one person on this Earth I could ever love this way, lest I diminish that love through feeling that way about another?  Would that even happen?  I mean, my parents had six kids.  None of us felt less loved than the others.

I suddenly started to get a handle on this issue, and the first thing that helped was to understand that a) I didn't know a damn thing about "love", and b) nobody else did, either.  I was in the first generation to have a 50% or greater divorce rate, and one of the first to deal with single-parent families (both through divorce, death and as a mindful life-choice).  It was becoming obvious to me that what society said about love was vastly different from what love's boots were like on the ground (or outside the door, or banging, or...  anyway.)

Sadly, my time with RDL was cut short.  We were there for each-other until the end.  I still miss her.  And yes, I still love her.  Deeply.  Every woman I've ever been with has been told of her, and I have told most of those later women that they own her a debt of thanks.  She is without question the main reason why I am the man I am today, and most likely the reason why they fell in love with me.  She was my greatest teacher, for she taught me that love is nothing like what is printed or put up on the silver screen.  It is so much more than that.  It is truly a Universal thing.  She was tapped into something huge, mighty and powerful.  Trans-formative.  Transmogrifying.  Transcendental.  I wanted to taste that.  She fed me.  Then she had to go.  The very last words she uttered to me were "Be honest with yourself, always, and know that I truly love you."

The following years were a morass of mistakes, tempests, fool's errands and other missteps.  After RDL, I tried monogamy, thinking that I could never experience what I had with RDL outside of the strong container of safety and encouragement that she provided.  My first was with a girl I'd went to high-school with, that had me making the mistake of proposing to her after only a week together, and which ended a month later after I wised-up to the fact that I was about to ruin both our lives.  The longest try at monogamy lasted nearly six years.  It ended less over the issue of monogamy -vs- polyamory than it did over a mismatch of personalities, ages and life-goals.  But I knew that when I left the Center Coast for the Left Coast that I wanted to be polyamorous again.

That I'd fallen in-love on-line with an amazing polyamorous woman in Portland, OR sort-of sealed that deal.  I've been here in Portland, and actively polyamorous, ever since.  That relationship was also very formative.  It was my first marriage.  It was my first divorce.  It put my daughter in my life.  It was a time of great growth, both personal and spiritual, and I owe her, too, a great debt of thanks.  And yes, I still love her.  Deeply.  Too.  But more in an agape way.  She's with the right person.  She's happier than I've ever seen her.  That's the promise I made to her on our wedding day: to do all that was in my power to make her happy.  That just also included asking her for a divorce when the time insisted upon it.

Polyamory developed quite a bit over the years.  It now has clubs, magazines, TV pieces featuring it and a whole raft of other trappings, institutions and eclectica, like shirts and buttons with pithy sayings (which we all know makes it relevant).  But what is it really, and how does it relate to my life, and to a life devoted to the Dharma?

Teh Wikipedia defines "polyamory" as "...the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved."  Now, this to me is a bit short-shrifted of an answer.  The above could also apply to swinging, which poly is most assuredly not.  "Intimate relationship"--were the term "intimate" to be used properly--would be okay, but the word typically carries too much mere sexual baggage.  I tend to use the terms "heart-centric" or "emotional" to reinforce the most pertinent point of polyamory for me: the heart.  For me, and for most long-term poly practitioners, polyamory is better defined as "...the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one concurrent emotionally intimate, heart-based or romantic relationship--with or without sex--with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved."

Secks.  About that.  Yes, I've been ENM (or "ethically non-monogamous") my entire adult life.  I have felt open to many interactions with many people over my lifetime.  Yes, more than many other people, but honestly, less than you might think, given my circumstances.  ENM/Poly has never been a vehicle for merely shagging anything I want at any time.  It's not that simple.  Nor is it that easy.  And as I have grown in the Dharma (having taken the first Five Precepts), I have come to view polyamory as a very special embodiment of the practice of the precepts.  Talk about a practice of non-attachment!  Oy!  So, let's look at those precepts, shall we?  As a matter of fact, let's look at the whole thing: how does the practice of polyamory and the dharma mesh in my life?
  • Polyamory is about ethics.  At least it is for me, or anyone truly operating within the original model.  This is not about "getting some on the side".  In true, open polyamory, not only does everyone know about one-another, everyone typically knows one another, at least in a formal--if not cordial--sense.  There are no secret lovers.  There's no sneaking around.  Of course, any model can be improperly or dishonestly implemented.  If, say, you were poly, found someone you fancied, and saw them--romantically or intimately--without letting other partners know about it, that would be cheating, just like in the monogamous world.  The interesting twist here is that, unlike monogamy, you are responsible to more people at the same time.  The potential to hurt more people with unskillful action is even greater.  Which leads us nicely to...
  • Polyamory is about karma.  Boy-howdy!  Again, as above, you are not just responsible to one person.  Your actions often have an immediate effect on numerous lives.  That is very swift karma, and the potential to harm people by heedlessness and selfish action is possibly higher than with monogamy.
  • Polyamory is about mindfulness.  You bet it is.  You will come to no good end if you don't remember where you should be and when, to say the least.  Double-booking, forgetfulness, kids and other associated partner's names, birthdays, anniversaries, etc are all challenges that people have with ONE "significant other".  Try it with more than one!  Being attentive to multiple partner's needs--emotional, physical or what-have-you--and being involved in their lives in any substantial way is a very demanding practice in mindfulness.  You cannot expect to be a fulfilled and fulfilling partner in a poly dynamic if you have a "phuq-all" attitude.  It, and you, will crash and burn before take-off.
  • Polyamory is about non-attachment.  <-- Understatement of the year.  What greater exercise in non-attachment is there than to give your heart to someone, and then not only allow--but support--that partner in a similar relationship with someone else?  We all want to feel special.  We all want to be the center of someone's world.  Yet at the same time, deep down inside, we all are insecure when it comes to love.  When our partner appears less interested than they once were, or admits to being interested in someone else, we immediately say to ourselves "I'm going to lose them..." as if they were a mere possession.  Yet at the same time, many--if not most--people like to say things like "love is infinite".  Well, if the latter is true, how can the former happen?  If there is no end to love's ability to feel, to express, and to expand and encompass all it needs to, then why do we so often allow our heart to "attach" itself?  Or, is it--in fact--the heart that's doing the attachment after all?  Could it be the ego--the "small self"--at work here?  Jealousy is often defined as the ego crying "this is MINE!" when the heart-mind--or the "greater or true self" is saying "this is Universal".  And make no mistake about it: poly people deal with jealousy all the time.  If anything, we just try and go about dealing with it differently.  Which leads us to...
  • Polyamory is about communication.  And frankly, it's vastly more about communication than sex.  By magnitudes.  There must be constant, open, and at times very intense communication with partners in order for polyamory to be healthy and happy.  There really is no place for biting one's tongue, burying feelings, sweeping things under the rug.  It will upset the apple-cart, that pea will disturb the princess, etc, and will likely do so in the most upsetting way possible and at the most inopportune time.  The only way to head-off problems before they happen is for everyone to communicate in an open and honest fashion at all times.  To say that it's challenging doesn't cover it.  At times it's completely Herculean, at others, it can feel down-right Sisyphean.  But it must, must, must be done in order for this life-choice to be ethical.  After all, lies of omission are still lies.
So, those are just some of the issues that are tangentially related to polyamory and a Dharma life.  But what did the Buddha say about any of this?  Well, frankly, not too damn much.  Honestly, the Buddha didn't actually say a whole lot about love and sex while he taught.  More than anything, he likely viewed romantic love in a slightly dim light, in the same way that inspired him to name his son Rāhula, or "fetter".  This is so often interpreted as a major negative.  "How could the Buddha, someone who professes love and compassion, name his only child 'ball and chain'?  How cold-hearted!  How could the Buddha look at love and romance as something so negative an influence on life?!"  Well, look at it this way...
  • Has love ever caused you to be heedless, or to make unskillful decisions?
  • Have you ever felt "intoxicated" by love?
  • Have you ever lied about your feelings for someone in order to protect yourself, or ingratiate yourself to someone in the hopes of gaining their affections?
  • Have you ever acted spitefully in order to lash out at someone who you feel has hurt you or your heart?  Worded differently: have you ever gone out of your way to kill someone's joy?
  • Have you ever passed up an opportunity for personal growth or betterment simply due to your desire to stay within the comfort-zone of an established relationship?
I'm sure it's becoming clear where I'm going with this.  I have to answer "yes" to all of the above at one point or another in my life, and I'm pretty sure you do, too.  In the case of someone who is working with renunciation--or mindful letting go of attachments--"love" most certainly can be a fetter.  That romantic "love", or even familial "love", is a connection that attaches one to a sense of comfort, placidity, and predictability.  When the Buddha named his son Rāhula, it was not an insult.  It was an admission of the truth of the Great Matter.  It was as if he was saying "I will love you, and my heart will bind to you, and no matter how hard I try, this, too, will cause suffering.  The problem is not that I don't love you, son.  The problem is that I do.  I must give up all fetters so that all human beings can free themselves from the ever-turning wheel of saṃsāra, and that includes you."  Now that's not to say that romantic or familial love is a pointless waste of time, or is in and of itself unskillful.  Far from it.  But allowing it to be blown out of proportion--as it so very often is--is where the fetter is created.  One can, and should, love, but it must always be with the acknowladgement of the Truth of the Great Matter.
All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature of change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.1
This is the Truth of "love".   It will not last.  It is of dependent origin.  It is finite, and must be fit into a tiny lifetime.  But just because of that, it is not diminished in the least bit.  Because that "love" is--or at least can be--a manifestation of a much greater, and Universal "Love", in the same way that a single wave is an expression and manifestation of the entire ocean.  And just like that one wave, that one single peak of movement and water, it is finite, and it will disappear.  But even so, its transient nature does not in any way diminish the ocean.  Waves come and go, yet the ocean remains.

The ocean.  The vastness of "Love".  We always hear the term "unconditional love" bandied about.  It's verging on being over-used.  I've always found it sadly ironic that I hear it in wedding vows and ceremonies all the time, and then, right behind it are tagged (you guessed it) a list of conditions!  It's nearly like saying "I'll love you unconditionally, unless you do this, this or this, and you can't do this either.  You must promise me this, and in exchange for that, I'll promise you this."  Hmmm. All that's missing from that, to my mind, is the term "Party of the First Part", and all the rest of the legal mumbo-jumbo.  Talk about romance!

I could go on and on (and on...) about this, but as this is now the longest blog in my blogging history, I'm going to try and wrap this puppy up.  I guess I'll try and close this up like this:

In my life--my life, the only one I can actually do anything about--I know that to be genuine, I have to do as my heart dictates, and that those actions must be in accord with my ethics and the Precepts as I understand them.  My actions are always governed by ahiṃsā, or "non-harming" taking into account all those I love, including myself.  Physical, mental and emotional harm can only be prevented or mitigated by my actions, my deeds.  "My deeds are my closest companions.  I am the beneficiary of my deeds.  My deeds are the ground upon which I stand."1 Love is so vast, and I do not feel that I can be genuine, and fully embody my life here this time around, if I commit to something I do not truly and genuinely feel in my heart.  I believe--I truly believe--that I have an infinite capacity to love.  I also believe that my ability to love more than one person at a time in an emotionally--and at times physically--intimate way is in and of itself one more Dharma gate in an infinite and boundless realm of Dharma gates, and I have repeatedly taken a vow to enter them all.2  This, too, is a practice in compassion, deep listening, non-violent communication, openness, non-attachment, equanimity, selflessness, and above all else, ethical living.  It is not merely about sexual gratification, nor is it--nor can it be--about selfish sensory or emotional fulfilment and ego gratification, and I am always hyper-aware of my own motivations and sense of "self" through this life-choice.

In closing, I'd just like to say that I am one of the luckiest people on the planet.  I am in relationships with two unbelievable women, both of whom, in their own ways, help bring out the very best in me.  They challenge me to be the man that I want to be deep down.  They accept me unconditionally.  They care for me in ways that are very hard to explain, and it humbles me down to my very core.  Could I find that fulfillment, that challenge, that sense of connection in a monogamous relationship?  I'm sure the chances are good.  But were I to do so from anyplace other than an honest desire in my heart to do so, and not by some societal mandate, I would be being disingenuous, and I promised myself when I started pursuing the Dharma that I wouldn't allow myself to do that.  The Dharma is Truth, and to try and be anything other than who I really am is a disservice to both the Dharma and to myself, and thereby all beings.  And the Truth of the Great Matter is just as the Buddha said:
"Thousands of candles
can be lit from a single candle,
and the life of the candle
will not be shortened.
Love and happiness never decreases
by being shared."

— Sutta Nipata
That is what love is to me.  And I commit to following the path honestly, and with an open heart, through ethical adherence to the Precepts.

'Till death I do part.