Buddhism, Polyamory, and Love. [1/2]
This is the second in a series of blog posts looking at Buddhism and Polyamory.
Groundwork covered, let’s look at love!
Depending on how (and if) you count it, some scholars suggest that Buddhism recognises over 500 different kinds of love. Personally, I think that’s a bit of a stretch! I mention it, though, so you may suspect* that Buddhism hasn’t got too big a chip on it’s shoulder about what shape love is allowed to take.
We’re going to look at four of the most fundamental of those shapes, what are known as the four “divine abodes”; literally four ideal ways of conducting oneself. It is not expected that these are innate, nor that they can be simply adopted, but rather that they require practise. As they are each a form of love, it’s suggested that we learn to practise them towards our loved ones first, (beginning with ourselves!) as this should be easiest. Then, once we get better at pinning down those feelings and responses, we practise these conducts towards our acquaintances, then towards strangers, then to our enemies, until finally these things will become our new defaults when interacting with anyone/thing.
The first and hardest to convey is loving kindness, (“metta”). Often described as ‘tender’ and ‘humane’; loving kindness is encapsulated by the mantra: “may you be well, may you be happy, may you be safe from inner and outer harm”. It’s a general acknowledgement that everyone, everyone, has the right to not only co-exist on this lump of rock with us, but to do so at the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.
The second is compassion, (“karuna”), the embodiment of empathy. Simply, it is the ability to imagine ourselves in somone elses shoes and to realise that we are no different, and we are not exempt. Compassion is to see someone who is homeless, contemplate how excluded and painful that must feel, and to understand that these things could very well befall us too. The implication is our behavior will then be modified by this understanding and we will naturally “treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves”.
The third, (“mudita”), is usually translated as ‘sympathetic’ or ‘vicarious joy’, and is the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it. It is often defined as the opposite of jealousy.
The fourth and final quality is equanimity, (“apekkha”), an acceptance of being present in that moment and yet realising that that moment, and all things and feelings in it, will pass. It is a state in which we are not ‘grasping’ (wanting things we don’t have) and not ‘pushing’ (not wanting what we do have) because, even if we were able to get that perfect state with all the things we want and nothing we don’t want, that too would pass and we’d be struggling to get there again!
Buddhism is premised on the fact that every relationship (in the widest sense of the word) is a training ground for us to develop these qualities of kindness, empathy, sympathetic joy and acceptance. They may not all be exactly what we’d call ‘love’ but throughout them one thing is consistently true. Love is detached from ourselves and our selfish wants/needs and is unselfish and unconditional. It is the honest state of wanting everyone to be free and happy.
So it could be argued that, without realising, polyamourous folk cultivate these daily in a way that monogamous people don’t. And, if so, that a polyamourous set up is a far closer match to these “ideal ways of conducting oneself” than a monogamous relationship.
After all, one of the greatest enemies of loving kindness is judgement and as a general rule, those who have broken free of the norm are less inclined to be out throwing stones. Having to justify ourselves and our right to pursue this happiness is a great opportunity to remember how we are all entitled to these freedoms.
Sympathetic joy we may know better now as compersion. A skill so necessary in polyamorous relationships that we claimed and re-named it!
And equanimity is what we cultivate every time we take a step back when we’re insecure or jealous rather than acting out or seeking reassurance. It is the massive and courageous leap we took when we let go of the notion of monogamy and set ourselves at odds with our cultural and societal upbringing, and it is the “not grasping” we extend to our partners as we leave them free to explore other loves.
But hold your horses, I’m not saying we’re all incidental Buddhists! This was the first of two posts on love. For balance, the other explores why polyamory may in fact be at odds with these qualities..
*(and you’d be largely, though not entirely, right)