Thursday, December 25, 2003

Creativity in the way we live

Years ago I would fantasize about creating and living in an intentional community. My friends and I would talk about the many ways it is possible to be creative, not just with pens or brushes. We could be creative in the ways we live, in our relationships, in our internal world. We could spend long moments on this particular creative thought. Some of this fantasy was selfish: I wanted to share those chores that I like to avoid such as cooking and cleaning, home maintenance. I wished to share communal space and social time, but keep private quarters and private time.

I would consider the options in an urban setting, and my own poverty-stricken circumstances. A small apartment building would do the trick. A group of people could pool our buying power, setting aside one or two apartments for communal space. We could share meals, taking turns cooking dinner for everyone. We could have maintenance days, even housecleaning days, where we work together and consequently find more time for the good things in life.

One of my friends eventually did buy the largest house she could for the mortgage she could afford. She fully intended to surround herself with housemates. Since such a scheme would not have suited my insular first husband, I have to wonder now just how much of my fantasizing had another unconscious wish attached.

Now I talk with my current husband about such communities and he brings me down to earth. Unless there is some deeply shared guiding principle, it’s hard to maintain such a democratic community. If people aren’t turned in the same direction in some way, such as a religion, something external to each individual that reinforces the bond, there is no way, really, to keep that bond strong. One of the inspirations during those conversations was our zen center. Such intentional communities have existed for centuries, and what makes them work is the shared structure of the Buddhist religion (and even then they don’t always work).

Now I am living that creativity in relationships. The fantasy may have been one of a shared three-way love, something that does happen, but perhaps is rarer than separate loves. In reality, my husband is sharing his holidays with his wife and his girlfriend. I have yet to meet his girlfriend, and the time we share with him will be separate. Someday soon I hope to meet her, but we all have sense enough not to try that over the holidays.

I still have that fantasy of an extended intentional community. Now it has more shape, as I envision an ideal polyamorous situation would be in a big rambling house together, or a duplex or something-plex. Years ago, my communal fantasy was an escape. Now, it arises as a possibility in answer to the question, “How can we make this work?” Since we live in a duplex, to me the natural response is this. We can have separate but close lives. We could more easily share a husband, and expenses. Why not? If more significant others enter the equation, move to a larger plex?

Monday, December 08, 2003

After fear, adventures in polyamory

Nearly every Sunday my zen center friends and I go out to lunch after our morning services. These relationships are a rich and important part of my life. This Sunday I overheard two at the other end of the table discussing the one-with-everything zen joke. There is an addendum to that joke. The (secret zen master) hot dog vendor prepares the one hot dog with everything for the zen monk, and the monk hands her a twenty dollar bill. The vendor doesn't give the monk any change, and when the monk asks for it, she says, "Change comes from within."

Zen is full of pithy stories about change coming from within, about one's whole connection to a person or thing changing because of one's own perception or attitude. Take for example the rowboat story. Briefly, someone in a boat is about to get hit by another boat. He yells and screams for the other boat to change course, and gets quite angry. Finally when it is close enough, he sees the boat is adrift, no one is on board. Now he laughs. Nothing about the boat changed but his perception and his own attitude. In its barest essence, zen is about paying attention to those changes within.

Right now I'm working on laying the foundation of what 'adventures in multiplicity' means to me. Before I started, I'd laugh to myself over my adventures in polyamory, which led to the broader concept. It's hard to summarize my multitudinous world view without hauling out the photo albums of my internal life, paging through, pointing out how I got here, how I got there. It's also hard because some part of this is a way to explain myself to my Buddhist friends who'd like to understand, but don't, why I choose polyamory.

My choice of polyamory is a natural outcome of my Buddhist practice. Some will think that rather shocking, as we have a Buddhist precept that says "Do not misuse sexuality," and it is often interpreted rather conservatively. I have been taught that rather than commandments, the precepts are guidelines through which we measure ourselves, and find our own internal truth that fulfills them. I don't recall ever feeling possessive of my significant other, or jealous, or wishing him to be faithful to me. I have likewise experienced a reluctance to look toward a future of committed monogamy. I did choose monogamy: my first marriage lasted nearly seven years, and we'd been together around eleven years. Throughout those years, I did not demand monogamy. He wanted me to be his everything, and was jealous not only of male friends, but of anything that took my time away from him, even my Buddhist practice. Ultimately, thanks to my Buddhist practice, my unconscious fear of being alone became conscious and that fear no longer held me in its thrall.

I awakened to a deeper possibility of love thanks to that lifting of fear. My direction shifted from a constant internal focus to one of connection to others. When I met someone who felt as I did about non-monogamy, we gradually incorporated it into our lives. I found that as we became more comfortable with it, and shed that societal conditioning that says monogamy has all the integrity, my connections to others opened up. I experienced a deeper appreciation for all my relationships, and I began to see all relationships as sharing in that same deep loving connection that I share with my primary significant other. I find myself reluctant to use those labels. Husband. Best friend. Secondary partner. Housemate. Some aspects of my life I share with my husband. Some aspects I share with other close friends and not with my husband. I would be as devastated to lose my Buddhist teacher as I would to lose my husband. What necessarily places one over the other? Why is there a hierarchy in the first place, why not just differences?

I enjoy learning. Getting involved with new people means learning new feelings, new facts, new intimacies, new ways of being a friend. When I identify as polyamorous, what I mean is that I'm open to the possibilities. It's possible we could be casual friends, deeply intimate friends, could be all business, could have sex, could not have sex, could never see each other again, could flirt outrageously, or flirt chastely, could fall in love.... Whatever happened, it wouldn't mean that I must turn away from all the other loves in my life. Whatever kind of connection I have now and might form in the future, honesty and respect would form the foundation, along with that love that connects us all. When we can share intimacy, we share in being one with everything. The way we share that intimacy is as varied as each rich moment shared with each individual. What an adventure!

Thursday, December 04, 2003

The Multiplicity of No-Self

I have been practicing Zen Buddhism for 16 years. Remember the Zen joke: What did the Zen monk say to the hot dog vendor? ..."Make me one with everything." It might seem odd then that I focus on multiplicity. Zen is also popularly known for its paradoxes, but on a deep level, there is no paradox.

Throughout the nearly ten years that we have kept this commitment, my Zen teacher has advised me "Be authentic." and "Don't be afraid to make a mistake." Here comes my attempt to be authentic, in a public way.

A fundamental concept in Zen is the notion of no-self. Ultimately, the self has no form it can call its own, permanently and undividedly. Often people may get involved in Buddhism thinking the only way to understand this would be to have an enlightenment experience, I certainly did. I have not had that experience, but I think I understand this. In order to introduce the subject, we in our sangha will say, "think of it as no-permanent-self". I am not the same self as the little girl seeking acceptance on the playground, nor the same self as the weight-conscious teenager, nor the same as the philosophizing college student. I am not the same self that began writing this blog.

On the other hand, I do contain that little girl, that teenager, that college student. Just to complicate things, those selves that make up me have been changed by time and memory and subsequent experiences. Sometimes their faces emerge and influence actions I may make today. All my experiences, all the conditions that have gone into the mix to make up me, they are pieces of me. They are my selves, distinct and changing. Is there something between the distinctive pieces? I have had glimpses of that emptiness, at least, I think that's what it is.

Looking at the no-self from another angle, we have certain selves that arise in certain conditions. Family gatherings invoke one self, nights out with friends another, spiritual gatherings yet another self. This multitude of selves may not exist continuously, separately, but arise and are born, or reborn, as the occasion demands. We Buddhists like to say this is possible thanks to that emptiness, possible only because there is no inherent self.

I have also learned and experienced that through the practice of awareness, my sense of self became less rigid. Any person who takes up a mindfulness practice will find there must be a period of time to work through karmic knots: those past conditions and experiences that influenced our current being raise their ugly and not-so-ugly heads and demand to be unentangled. More and more, those conditions have less influence and we can meet whatever is in front of us. A multiplicity of options open up. Notions of right or wrong begin to have less to do with societal constraints and those karmic conditions, and more to do with an internal sense of truth.

This multiplicity of selves exist in relationship to something or someone. Just as my notion of my self has become more fluid, so has my notion of relationships. The usual boxes dissolve, and a multiplicity of options in relationships open up. More on that later.