In the past few weeks, there have been several of our sangha members, both virtual and local, young and (dare I say) more mature, who’ve asked me about their deep longing for partnership. Questions surrounding how they might find true intimacy, and then how to ground relationships spiritually, have dominated our discussions. This is not only appropriate but it is an utterly necessary demand to put on spiritual work if the blessings of ancient traditions are going to survive in the face of contemporary societies most pressing needs. So can dating be more conscious, more enlightened? The answer depends on one’s willingness to truly meet his or her life from a place of radical honesty and depth, where people work to courageously face and then see through their loneliness.
Truth be told, my expertise on this issue should be considered suspect. I haven’t dated since the last century. It should also be noted that I spent much of my youth searching for connection in pretty destructive ways. In high school and college, I learned that if I couldn’t have a meaningful relationship of depth with the one that I wanted, I might as well, as the song goes, love the one I was with. Lot’s of playing around in between long-lasting relationships of varying degrees of dysfunction. But as the years passed, I became pretty picky. I began to hone my checklist of what I wanted and what I didn’t want in a partner and became clear about where I was willing to compromise, and, more importantly, where I wasn’t.
What I really wanted was to live near truth, all of the time. I wanted to love and to be loved, and I wanted this shared experience to show up as something deep, something of merit, integrity and power. I wanted something that could lead me closer to awakening with another. This impulse began to grow in me as I was introduced to Buddhist training which began to show me that my patterns of sexual greed merely fed the parts of me that continually prevented clarity. The more I sat in meditation, however, the more I began to see that my time alone was a gift that allowed me to see through to the core of my own loneliness. When I got to the base of my sense of alienation and disconnectedness, I saw a bunch of false stories of inadequacy that I’d written over many years. I had the help of a great therapist and a great Zen teacher in uncovering all of this, with each of them relentlessly pointing me in the direction of my own interior. In time I no longer felt the compulsion to act on my desire to escape from my pain. I learned that pain was simply intensity that I was continually running from. When I accepted and sat still in the face of the intensity, however, I saw that it had no power over what was real in me. As a result of this discovery, a relatively unshakeable and comfortable presence began to grow regardless of whether or not I was with or without a partner. Not surprisingly, it was in this felt-sense of wholeness that partnerships of true potential started to show up.
This period of my life, while one of the most challenging, was also one of the most rewarding. I could see in no uncertain terms I was being offered a chance at living intimately with my own experience in ways that allowed for a refocussing of my sexual energy. I began the process of uncovering a deeper intimacy with myself and began to commit to the idea of dating, and by extension, sleeping with another, only if it was a conscious celebration of what was true and sacred in each of us. If I couldn’t do this, I wouldn’t pursue the potential partner for anything other than conversation. As this intention began to evolve, I found that I could tell within minutes whether or not any resonance could be nurtured with the woman sitting across from me. At least this was true most of the time. Of course there were hiccups and mistakes along the way but they became fewer and further between streaks of happiness that no longer depended on the level of romance in my life.
As you might expect, at the moment that this clarity began to settle in my bones, someone special showed up. I’ll spare the details of our time together, but I’ll say that the homework and the commitments I made to myself were what allowed me to find her. We went out on a Friday, she moved in two days later and within six weeks we were engaged. Still, despite our love for each other, it hasn’t all been milk and honey. Truth be told, relationships are cauldrons and there are times when things get so hot that unconsciousness can reign. But in our case the shared commitment to truth, to our kids and to each other’s growth continues to guide us in times of difficulty as well as in times of bliss. I hope it will continue, but as my wife and I have discussed, whether we stay together until one of us dies, or the relationship predeceases either of us, we are committed to living with each other from a place of depth; a place perpetually near truth. This is our vow, and because of it we feel like whatever circumstances arise, we are able to be more conscious, more intimate with what is sacred both for us as individuals and for us as a couple.
So back to this idea of how to find a partner in the singles market. If we look at a strategy from the perspective of the teaching, there are some pretty obvious types of people to avoid and some pretty obvious types of people to bring into your life. I’ve listed non-gender-specific categories, both the ones to avoid and the ones to cultivate. But, I might add, these are inherently incomplete. To be sure there is cross-over from category to category, and most of us will find both healthy and unhealthy qualities in ourselves. Using these rough archetypes as pointers to what awakened dating is not as well as what it might be, we can begin to uncover a map for ourselves.
What qualities hinder a healthy relationship?
Dishonesty: He’s shady and won’t commit to anyone beyond the superficial, offering up convenient evasions when his needs aren’t met. She’s in this game for herself, saying she’ll call and she won’t, she’ll be there by 8 and then cancels at 7:30 once something better comes along. He cheats and is manipulative, caring more for pleasure than for anything deep or real. She is self-serving, unavailable, unstable and can’t find lasting happiness because she’s always hedging her bets. He may be charming, but has learned that he can always withstand the costs of the pain he inflicts. She can not be trusted because she can not trust herself.
Avoidance: She doesn’t have the strength to face life as it’s happening and as a result is always seeking an escape from what she’s experiencing. He may be into, or even addicted to, drugs or alcohol as ways of avoiding his reality’s inherent discomfort. She may find a temporary sense of power and release in sleeping around since this kind of gratification is an easy way for her to numb herself temporarily from the pain of her loneliness. Unfortunately, her promiscuity and her damaged image in the eyes of others are what keep any healthy kind of relationship elusive. His identity is built around never facing his life, thus he keeps himself trapped in shallow water. He can never find resources of depth with which to serve himself or anyone else with the kind of authenticity he most wants.
Control: He wants to convert his partner to seeing things his way with missionary zeal. She’s learned either to cling to her partner or to use rejection as a way of feeling like she’s in charge and empowered. He’s abusive in subtle, and not so subtle ways, continually projecting his own insecurity on his partner and he often lets jealousy and criticism govern, and close, his heart and mind. She knows how to both tease and charm, using her looks, her style of dress, her charisma and whatever else to get attention, status or gold, and as a result of her work in this arena she diminishes herself and her capacity to experience real love.
Damage: She is desperate to find comfort and release from her pain. He feels unworthy and often tries to compensate by over-identifying with an image or group and wants to please everyone he can, all of the time. She may find temporary solace from her pain by judging others as inferior and finds herself attracted to nearly anyone attracted to her. He is perpetually defensive and feels depleted by trying to keep his deeply held sense of inadequacy a secret. She is afraid and therefore usually angry in overt and covert ways that often show up as guilt, darkness and desperation. He can be predatory and can unconsciously recreate the damage in himself and others that he first felt during his childhood.
Narcissism: He loves every mirror he sees, sculpts his hair and body, and loves the way he feels in his clothes. Her image matters a great deal to her and she crafts her presentation to the world with great effort and care. His online presence is about sharing the images of himself that continually advertise what he thinks make him look like someone of value to each of his 2602 Facebook friends. She’s a party girl who loves, and craves, attention and wants her potential suitors to know that she has skills and knows how to use them to serve her own needs. At the same time her addiction to validation and adoration creates a destructive imbalance in any connection she tries to make.
On the other end of things, there are certain people to whom we should make ourselves available. Again, nothing too shocking here but being on the lookout for those that help us to be better, more awake, more compassionate, wiser and more genuine can’t hurt. In fact, we may find that the person we’ve dreamed of meeting is waiting for us once we do the work involved in becoming truly available to the mystery of awakened connectivity.
What kind of qualities support a healthy relationship?
Support: She recognizes what’s sacred and cares for its expression in both herself and her partner. He celebrates his partner’s successes, as well as his own, and helps uncover the deeper lessons of each failure that they meet together. She is kind and uses her words skillfully. He is loving and recognizes the limitless gifts offered by all beings, all of the time. She is committed and strong. He is decisive and resolute.
Generosity: He gives to the betterment of the relationship by nurturing his own growth. She knows, and commits, to practicing giving of herself in all situations with a totality that changes lives. He cares for what’s beyond himself, beyond his partner and beyond his community and yet sees that when this kind of care is fully expressed, that he, his partner and his community benefit. She recognizes her limits as well as her limitless nature. He sees that the relationship matters more than his comfort zone. She understands that saying “no” can be one of the most generous things to say in some situations. He understands that accepting what the Universe is offering, and then responding appropriately, is the only option if true happiness is the goal.
Fearlessness: She has uncovered a courage that allows for her never to diminish her integrity, her worth, her mind or her body. This fire inspires all of those around her, young and old. He is a role model to many, has traveled the world and seen life, and knows in his heart that his actions and his growth have meaning; that integrating different perspectives into his own makes him at once humble and in possession of a rare kind of power. She resonates with what she knows to be true and never avoids meeting it no matter what the implications. He is not afraid to recognize what he doesn’t know and allows for this not-knowing to support a shared spiritual journey with his partner. She picks her sexual partners very carefully and yet her energy and her celebratory nature are contagious. He knows that all things are temporary and so is committed to living well and being upright no matter how beautiful or how awful his circumstance might be.
Honesty: He doesn’t lie to himself or to others and knows the power of facing truth without flinching. She has learned that to avoid anything is to cause harm. He sees that small wars of conscience keep him from building a life of substance and meaning. She sees that there is no such thing as sacred intimacy without a total commitment to honesty in her partnership. He knows that there is nothing as important as continually standing in the light of truth, so he does. She is a radiant expression of breathtaking beauty and power, but never uses her shine to manipulate. He can laugh at himself. She sees that pleasure comes from external things and is a temporary experience, and sees that joy is a boundless and natural expression of being when she meets her life at its deepest levels.
Balance: She walks her talk and doesn’t stray from a life that is congruent with what she’s discovered to be sacred and true for herself as well as all other beings. He is deep, informed, passionate and interesting to other people but doesn’t see himself as special. She knows that all beings have genius, even if it’s outwardly hidden, and commits to finding and supporting its discovery and expression in all beings. He knows the power of stillness, and shares the gifts of its practice with every person he meets. She is interested and committed to exploring the mysteries of life and wants to awaken herself and others as she moves through the world. He walks with presence. She is truly open to life.
As you can see, for the most part this is all common sense, but for those in the market for true intimacy, begin with an exploration of yourself. Explore who and what you’re attracted to. Explore what about yourself you like and don’t like. Explore your gifts and your deficiencies and honestly evaluate how you’re meeting potential partners and why you’re possibly hooking up with those that may not be good for you. Explore your fears and continually look at what holds you back and keeps you small. Explore all of your patterns and habits. Which ones are healthy? Which ones aren’t? Are you, in this moment, where you want most to be? Are your habitual patters helpful? If not, why are you repeatedly employing them and expecting to get a different outcome? Perhaps most importantly, explore the guides and models at your disposal. Are your peer relations helping you get to where you want or are they making your situation worse? Who, if anyone, do you know that is making it work? What kind of guide might serve you best? Do you have a spiritual teacher or a therapist, or both, that might keep you on track? Here again, uncovering what’s getting in your way, then acting with purpose isn’t necessarily easy. Then again it’s the only option if peace, joy and truly awakened love are what you most want. Besides, you have nothing to lose other than what’s been getting in your way. You will also probably find, with enough resolve, that your dreams can come true.