Friday, February 17, 2012

Attachment, Sexuality, and Spirituality (Part 2 of 2)

At the close of the previous post I posed a rhetorical question that I will make even more specific here: How does a Buddhist who’s taken a bodhisattva vow to save all beings reconcile that chosen spiritual path – including its inherent admonition regarding the perils of the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and delusion – with the existence of a strong romantic attachment to one being in particular, and the yearning to physically manifest that love? Let’s see…, I probably won’t be able to convince you that I’ve transcended ordinary ideas regarding self and other, and, as such, am merely experiencing the pleasure of what is – these circumstances that I just happen to find my non-self in. Oh, and I probably won’t be able to convince you that I don’t really yearn for my beloved at all but, rather, simply find myself in her arms over and over again – enjoying great pleasure without ever feeling the need to be with her ever again. No, it seems that I’m left with only a few possible responses as to how this Buddhist reconciles these apparently contradictory realities: 1) I don’t. 2) I don’t feel that I need to. 3) I don’t feel that I need to but I do see how attempting to do so might be a good exercise in increasing awareness. Well, given the fact that I’ve heard people say that they wrestle with the whole “Buddhist non-attachment thing”, I think I’ll have a go at response number three. Yes, yes, you're right, I suppose I have pondered this whole “Buddhist non-attachment thing” from time to time myself!

Let me point out the direction that I’m going with this by quoting two of the previous century’s greatest minds in their respective fields; the first, a Nobel Prize winning physicist; the second, one of the most influential researchers in the field of counseling psychology:

“The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false.

The opposite of a great truth is also true.”

– Neils Bohr

“Openness to experience… means that [a person’s] beliefs are not rigid,

 that he can tolerate ambiguity. He can receive much conflicting evidence

without forcing closure upon the situation.”

– Carl Rogers


Life is a grand and glorious journey. Existence is suffering. Both of these statements are as true as the day is long. We just need to keep in mind that a measure of the size of one’s heart is its ability to hold all at once the profound joys and the deepest sorrows of being. Likewise, a measure of the expansiveness of one’s mind is its ability to embrace without anxiety the apparent contradictions encountered as it delves deeper and deeper into this phenomenon we call existence. I study Buddhism with great seriousness, but in the end the sum total of all the sutras and stories and commentaries amounts to nothing but a pile of maps and an occasional signpost pointing the way through the wilderness of life, and my life, in particular – the life of the self that is not other. And so I sort through that pile and I keep my eye out for the occasional signpost, but in the end I know that the terrain of my life has never been seen before in the history of the universe.

I heard George Clooney talking on the radio the other day about his experience of fame. He remarked that oftentimes when people meet him they’re so busy capturing the moment on their camera-phones that he can’t help but wonder how they could ever really say that they’ve met him! Perhaps you’ve noticed that, as well? People go through the most meaningful moments of their lives while peering at the world through the lens of whatever artificial device they’ve come to think is more important than the moment itself.  I think it must have been my recognition of this tendency to mistake the lens for that which the lens allows us to see that allowed me to thoughtfully consider and then set aside the teaching of the monk that I referred to in a recent post – the one who was telling us that we should forever maintain a running awareness commentary in our heads until our dying day. I must have felt that that would essentially amount to my going through life looking at everything as if through an artificial lens separating me from precisely that which I strive to experience to the fullest, the unfolding of life itself, without the constant insinuation of an observor into the process.

Are we being arrogant when we feel in our gut, as I did then, that we know what’s best for our life and our spiritual practice? Are we falling prey to our most self-serving and deeply entrenched karma – or are we simply making good use of the wisdom of the one who knows best the terrain of our life? How do we know? How do we really know when there’s not a single thing to be learned from the lifeless words of others with respect to how we (and nobody else) should proceed in the next moment. Conversely, how do we recognize when we’ve fallen under the spell of arrogant delusion and should return yet again to the guidance of the great teachers of the world? Why don’t I show my age by dusting off and revising an old Reagan-Gorbachev era phrase: trust in yourself – but verify.

Yes, life is a grand and glorious journey, full of myriad ways for the spirit to be in this world. I’ll leave it to the reader to find whatever it is they’d like to in that word, spirit. If you’ve been with me since the very beginning of this blog, however, you’ll recall that the word spirit “need not refer to any metaphysical reality at all” but, instead, “might merely refer to that which animates the otherwise inanimate matter of our bodies – thereby making us alive.” (See the post entitled Spirituality and Religion for more on that topic.) My experience of being alive is one of moment-by-moment navigation through an environment of riches: here work, and there play; here solitude, and there the company of many; now an exhilarating run through the woods, now an armchair and a lamp and the words of one of the great teachers of the world; at once contemplating the merits of non-attachment, perhaps even enjoying its peace for a time just prior to settling, once again, into the warm embrace of my beloved, and feeling all over again that feeling of yearning and desire. And all the while I traverse this terrain I’m guided by certain overarching principles such as the bodhisattva vow to save all beings, the intention to act with keen awareness, and the intention to actualize as best I can the gifts of this body, heart, and mind.

On one hand we might view such an experience of life as one of being incessantly jerked to and fro by the mysterious workings of our karma – our habit energy. On the other hand, we might view it in terms of the old Zen saying regarding how to live once the true nature of the self has been realized: “chop wood, carry water.” How is it, anyway, that we know when we’re simply chopping wood and carrying water as opposed to being swept along by our habit energy?

Um…, Maku, haven’t you chopped enough wood already? What, are you anxious that you might get a little bit chilly or something? Oh…, and in case you haven’t noticed, there’s enough water in the barrel to last a week. I know you’ve got a thing about carrying water with you wherever you go, but, come on! Have a little faith that there will be water enough tomorrow!

Perhaps part of us secretly yearns for a teacher who will take from us both the freedom and the responsibility that is our birthright – the freedom and responsibility to determine how to live our lives in accord with our true nature. Ah, but what if we did manage to find some human approximation of an idealized mother or father figure who will tell us how to be? Wouldn’t we end up resenting them sooner or later for doing precisely what we secretly yearn for them to do? We can’t remain children forever!

From time to time over the years I’ve wondered about this mind that we call enlightened. What would it be like to experience life with such a mind; to experience life as the Buddha did – as an awakened being? (Buddha means, quite simply, awakened being.) Thankfully, I wonder about such things less and less as time goes on. Call it an attachment that I’m gradually relinquishing! Interestingly, though, the writings of a Western psychologist, very much a non-Buddhist as far as I can tell, offered me the clearest glimpse of what a so-called enlightened or awakened being must be capable of. As you read the following quote from Carl Rogers (1961), the man who first described what he called the fully functioning person, please read it not merely in terms of knowing what would be of benefit to the self, but knowing what would be of benefit to others, as well. Read it in terms of one being – a self that is not other – actualizing his or her existence in the best way possible for all beings. In other words, read it in terms of a being that experiences the truth of emptiness, sunyata:

This [fully functioning person] is open to all of his experience, he has access to all of the available data in the situation, on which to base his behavior. He has knowledge of his own feelings and impulses, which are often complex and contradictory. He is freely able to sense the social demands, from the relatively rigid social “laws” to the desires of friends and family. He has access to his memories of similar situations, and the consequences of different behaviors in those situations. He has a relatively accurate perception of this external situation in all of its complexity. He is better able to permit his total organism, his conscious thought participating, to consider, weigh and balance each stimulus, need, and demand, and its relative weight and intensity. Out of this complex weighing and balancing he is able to discover that course of action which seems to come closest to satisfying all his needs in the situation, long-range as well as immediate needs. (p. 118)

Rogers is speaking of what he called the fully functioning person – an individual that Abraham Maslow would refer to as self-actualizing. However, I am asking you to consider these conceptualizations as being robust enough to encompass the individual who aspires to fully actualize the self in order that he or she might transcend it – in order that he or she might become one with all beings, and, to the extent that it is humanly possible, save all beings. Thus, I read in Rogers words a description of the keenly aware bodhisattva, weighing the needs of self and other with great accuracy such that the suffering of all beings might be most effectively ameliorated. Rogers (1961) goes on to note that “in most of us the defects which interfere with this weighing and balancing are that we include things that are not part of our experience, and exclude elements that are” (p. 119). Wow, might a modern day Buddhist teacher make just such a statement?


Believe it or not, the entire preceding discussion is required for me to adequately address my personal experience of attachment, sexuality, and spirituality. After all, what is the opposite of the great truth that the attachment that is romantic (sexual) love is merely a hindrance along the path to the realization of the profound spiritual state of equanimity? Might it be that romantic (sexual) love, if engaged in with appropriate awareness, becomes an avenue leading to a deeper understanding of the nature of attachment and the true nature of self and other, i.e. an avenue that leads in the end to that very state of equanimity?

I actually can't imagine living in a close relationship with one for whom I have no feelings of sexual desire whatsoever, What would such a relationship look like? Would it be like that between two siblings or friends or business partners – presumably platonic? Would it be a marriage of financial convenience? Would it exist solely for the sake of companionship? And even if one of these alternative reasons for coming together did form the basis of the relationship, would there not yet remain some form of attachment, emotional or other, that would be stronger than for any other particular being in the world? My present conception of romantic relationship, then, is one that encompasses occasional "descent" into deep attachment and overwhelming desire to actualize in a physical way that which the spirit yearns to make manifest. At the same time, however, I do not see being in such a relationship as some kind of zero-sum game in which whatever time and energy two individuals spend making love is time and energy not spent helping to save all other beings. I simply see it as a great unfolding of life itself. (By the way, It occurs to me that perhaps we each need to answer for ourselves what it means to vow to save all beings. Does it mean that we behave in a charitable and compassionate way to all beings without discrimination, or does it mean more precisely that we convey something of the wisdom of the Dharma that might help break the cycle of samsaric suffering?)

So, it is my contention that it is the degree of awareness that we bring to our experience of romantic (sexual) love that determines the nature of its spirituality. Is our attachment merely a lustful, greedy, yearning for sexual experience for the sake of our small self, or is it a celebration of mutual aliveness within these fleetingly impermanent bodies – a nurturing act that allows both individuals (both selves that are not other) to act in the world with greater joy, love, energy, vibrancy, compassion, understanding, acceptance, equanimity, and efficacy, so as to make it a better place? Does such attachment not enable us to help save each other (and all beings for that matter) just a little bit? I will be making a stronger case for this point of view next week just in case you find it lacking at the present.

In the Buddhist traditions, food is sometimes referred to as “medicine”, something that is required in order to maintain these bodies for the sake of practice and for the benefit of the world. The early monastics needed very little: a robe, an alms bowl, a reasonably comfortable and safe place to meditate and sleep, and either the generosity of the forest for the filling of their alms bowl or the householders that they happened to encounter on their rounds. Perhaps somewhere even today within our modern society a homeless individual is continuing this tradition of enjoying the barest subsistence level of material comfort with the intention of furthering his or her spiritual practice. Most of us, however, have either chosen or feel compelled to follow a different path. We live in relationship with significant others, we have jobs and homes and cars. In short, we have much more complicated lives. We also have an abundance of opportunities to form attachments of every ilk. Perhaps the mendicants and ascetics of yesteryear have proven to us that the human spirit can be maintained with but a modicum of “medicine”. Perhaps we, too, will one day yield to an inner urge to renounce that which we now feel is absolutely necessary for our survival. Even now I can picture myself selling my far-too-large house (even in its smallness) and moving into a studio apartment in a neighborhood where I could get around on foot or bicycle – eking out a living off of savings and perhaps some writing income. But could my spirit really thrive in all of its potential without the love that I presently feel for and from another?

And just what does this relationship need in order to flourish? Certainly it needs whatever “medicine” we both agree that it needs for our mutual survival. Perhaps that would be enough, maybe even more than enough. I suspect that many older couples find this to be so – after either their biological urges have dissipated or their physical bodies cease to be able to continue the level and nature of sexual expression that they once shared in days gone by. But what does this present moment require of me and the one for whom my love is that much greater than for any other? For this I will have to throw away the sutras, throw away the ideas of others, and throw away my preconceived notions of what spiritual practice is all about; for this I will need to listen to my body, mind, and heart – the totality of my organism, as Carl Rogers would say; for this I will need to listen to my lover, and listen to what my experience of the totality of the universe is telling me to do in this very moment. Can such an experience – sexual though it may be – not involve in some way the relinquishment of small ideas regarding the nature of the self? In offering oneself up to relationship in this way do we not transcend small ideas of self and other and arrive at a state of being in the world that is free of preconceived notions and conceptualizations? If, indeed, this is attachment, then so be it; I proceed with full awareness that it is so.

I will continue musing on this matter in some way, shape, or form in the coming week. For now, though, let me close with some thoughts regarding how sexuality might either perpetuate a small-minded view of the self or foster its transcendence. I phrase these thoughts in the form of questions that we might consider in order to clarify our intentions:

Am I responding merely to an urge, a sense of need, or a feeling of deficit or emptiness within myself, or am I responding to the needs and feelings of my partner, and the world?

Do I desire this experience for the enrichment of myself, or do I desire that it enrich my partner, our relationship, and the world?

Do I view this experience as one of wielding power over another, or do I view it as one of yielding power and becoming vulnerable?

Do I see this act merely as one of receiving pleasure, alleviating boredom, etc., or do I see it as an opportunity to communicate with my partner on one of the deepest levels on which humans can communicate?

Do I consider this act merely one of the mutual fulfillment of biological needs, or do I see it within a larger emotional and even spiritual context?

Will this experience merely perpetuate or strengthen my view of myself as the most important and deserving entity in the world, or will it foster in me a sense of gratitude, for my partner and for the world?

Note: the Carl Rogers quote introducing this post is from Rogers (1961, pp. 115-116).


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Image Credits

Two Hands Over Blue Sky via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. I am presently reading Joko Beck's "Nothing Special." I have also noticed in "Everyday Zen" she talks about "labeling thoughts" and becoming an "observer." Which sounds much like what the master you refer to was teaching. Beck's teaching says that after a while on the path the need to label thoughts does drop. That it is a bit of a training mechanism to avoid "blanking out" while sitting. This is of course not Shikantasa, but I have found it useful. I notice that I was able to get to a place of no thoughts but that instead of awareness, I was just "blanking out" for lack of a better phrase. This labeling tends to bring awareness back, in my experience. Any thoughts on this?
    Sorry to ramble on so, but since you brought it up ;-)....
    PS. Nice job tackling the difficult questions of attachment.

  2. Thanks for reading and making such a great observation, Stacey! I agree with Joko Beck's approach and that which you have found beneficial. I view the labeling of thoughts, counting breaths, watching the breath, etc. as tools that we can wisely use for both our early meditation training and within any individual meditation session where we realize that we need something in order to focus our minds a little better. Clinging to them becomes a distraction, however.

    When I think of those instances in my life that I might refer to in retrospect as peak experience, spiritually insightful, transcendent, etc. I think of instances where there was no observor at all, there was no practice, nothing. But that's not to say that practice is not necessary for them to occur... it's just that we don't know when it will "bear fruit". Actually, one of the benefits of really intense concentration practices, in my experience, is that when they finally "dissolve" there is great clarity.

    Thank you for "rambling"! I do it all the time!

  3. Thanks for your response Maku! Here's to "bearing fruit." :-).

  4. "Do I see this act merely as one of receiving pleasure, alleviating boredom, etc., or do I see it as an opportunity to communicate with my partner on one of the deepest levels on which humans can communicate?"

    i love this question. i've come to find that this act my husband and i share is becoming more and more something of a prayer...a celebration of our bodies and the calm that surrounds our hearts.

    beautiful. thank you so much for sharing. i look forward to more!

  5. A prayer! That's awesome, Laura! When you say that, I am reminded of the intentionality of Buddhist forms of prayer. Like the Tibetan prayer wheels that contain rolled up papers with Om Mani Padme Hum written on them... The individual may be illiterate, or literate but still unknowledgable of the meaning of those syllables, and yet their spinning of the wheel reflects an intentionality that the wisdom of that prayer permeate the world. The prayer that you engage in with your husband strikes me as a similar form of intentionality that love be manifested in the world. Thank you!

  6. no, thank you! so beautifully articulated:) what a wonderful perspective on these loving relationships in our lives!