Monday, May 16, 2011

Dating Within Your Spiritual Community

Here is a topic I haven't seen written about much, if at all, although is tangentially related to the teacher sex scandals in the news lately. The topic is dating someone in your sangha or yoga community.

Take this guy, who is dealing with having an ex-girlfriend practicing in the same yoga studio.

So here I am, a grown, tough man, who has avoided going to yoga for days because I don’t want to see her, hear her, or even smell her patchouli.

I feel like she has stolen my refuge (thank goodness for RY!), and taken my one special place I can go and be surrounded by friends. All I can think when she is in class is “You owe me a ton of money” or “You hit me so hard I puked twice,” or worse. I certainly don’t want to dissuade my classmates from befriending her, as I believe (naively) that I somehow brought out the worst in her, and (hopefully) people can change.

Is she ruining my yoga experience? Yes, undoubtedly. Should I just deal with it and move on? Sure. Is it distracting to the point of infuriating when she is in the same class as me? Oh, god. YES.

Now, dude has some issues to sort out. He's pretty wound up and all. Yet, this kind of stuff happens a lot. Spiritual communities are - or would seem to be - one of the perfect places to meet someone you are compatible with. And people do - meet and become couples in these communities - all the time. And they also go through rough patches, and/or break up. Which certainly can make things awkward, if not unbearable.

I have had some conversations with a fellow Zen sangha member about these very issues. His views are fairly cautious about the whole idea of ever getting involved with another sangha member in the first place. He has, for example, a genuine concern that if things go wrong, the person he was dating might leave the community, or even practice all together. You might think he's placing too much emphasis on his potential influence, but what he's worried about actually happened to him once. So, I get it, and such a concern makes some sense, especially given that our primary purpose for being in a sangha is to practice together - not find someone to date.

Yet, I also have sensed in his tone a bit of the mixture of hands off/negative view that seems to play out in many spiritual communities around sexuality, romantic relationships, and their place within a spiritual life. What do I mean by this? Well, specifically the tendency to focus on what goes wrong in these areas, how sexuality and love relationships can be hindrances, and all the ways we get lost in fantasies driven by lust and other forms of desires. Indeed, due to the unfortunate number of Zen teacher scandals with sexual relationships at the center, many sanghas have created detailed documents sussing out some of the myriad of ways things can go wrong, and how members of the community need to act in order to "not go there." The same has started to happen in yoga studios, in response to overly invasive and/or predatory teachers hooking up with students.

Now, I'm fully in support of such policies. And I'm fully in support of anyone practicing in a spiritual community taking a good look at their desires around sex and love relationships, and making efforts to witness, curb, and/or weed out destructive tendencies.

However, I wonder if, in the process of protecting our communities, some of us have gone too far. Or more precisely, if the majority of discussion around sex and love relationships is focused on how they go wrong, then perhaps everything else is being shoved underground.

During a recent class on the third Zen precept, we split up into talking groups based on gender. There was some lively discussion for sure, but I was also struck at a percentage of men in our group that didn't want to talk about sexuality at all, or who were primarily focused on how much they screwed up when it came to working with the precepts and sexuality. My own comments were tinged with that flavor, which later made me pause.

Going back to the original issue, though, unlike my dharma brother, I have never dated anyone in either my Zen sangha or in the yoga communities I have been in. Have certainly thought about it, but have never made the leap. In part, this was due to time and circumstances - being in a relationship already when meeting someone I might otherwise be interested in. However, I also think there's a part of me that fears being part of a mess that spills over into the larger community, and also doesn't want to be seen as one of "those guys" who hits on women in spiritual communities. Because I'm not. And yet, all of that, in some way, seems to be tied to maintaining a certain image within the community - in my case, one that's pretty "clean" if you catch my drift.

Do people who are church or mosque goers think like this? Somehow, I think not as much. There seems to be a point of dating and/or marrying someone within your religion that doesn't play as strong, for better and for worst, amongst Western Buddhists and yoga students. And perhaps the general lack of attention and care for families and children in particular amongst these communities plays a role here.

A Methodist meeting another Methodist at their church would then, if they have children, naturally would bring those children to Sunday School classes. And if they are committed members of that community, they might have been in counsel with the Pastor from early on in their relationship together.

This scenario, in it's totality, seems so much less common amongst Western Buddhist and yoga communities. Even in my own Zen community, which has long had an active program for children, and tends to support families more so than the average American Zen center, parts of the above example don't seem to play out. People tend to come already matched, and with children, to the sangha. The idea that a couple would meet in the community, develop together, start a family, and then have those children grow up in the sangha is kind of foreign. I can think of a few examples that almost fit that bill, but they are exceptions.

And then there's the flip side of this issue - how to handle break ups with a community. I'm not convinced anyone - traditional church all the way to radical Zen sangha - has figured out some great way of talking about such things. Or of how to help people consider such things as dealing with community gossiping or being ex's and also members of the same community at the same time. And I can imagine there's plenty of repression to be had in your average church, mosque, or synagogue.

Yet, I wonder if the way in which things have been compartmentalized - that we tend to "do our spiritual thing" in one place - with a group of adults - and do most everything else in some other set of places - I wonder if this hasn't created a curious divide around what tend to be our most intimate relationships. That people who do date end up dating another member of their sangha or yoga community do so in a kind of hushed, privatized way. Or that some of us simply don't consider others in these places, thinking it's "wrong" somehow, instead of something to consider more carefully perhaps, given the group dynamics that can be involved. And others, who have dated and then break up, end up either leaving the community out of guilt, shame, or a feeling of having a lack of support.

Lot's of questions in my mind. Not a hell of a lot of answers. How about you? What has your experience been? Have you dating someone in your Buddhist or yoga community? Or have you seen such relationships develop and/or break up within your community?


Connor said...

The great thing about things like zazen is that we are called to just sit. Without stresses like interpersonal awkwardness, it is still a challenge to sit and be mindful and let go of our possessive nature.
Maybe a nasty breakup is a great gift in that it's almost a crash course in spiritual resilience! The challenge is to become aware of emotional conflict and maintain mindfulness about it and to just sit (or stretch, or enter data or flip burgers or care for others, whatever your situation may call for).

Well-written post, thank you!

buddhaswall said...

I am fairly new to the Buddhist teachings, so I can't really comment about the exact topic you are writing about. However, I have dated and broke up with people in another social organization that I was a part of where we were together camping on the weekends and such.

It's hard to have your 'comfort' place invaded by feelings of any uncomfortable nature. I just try to remember that we are all just trying to find peace and happiness. It is much easier when the person you are dealing with cares enough about the friendship that you had/have to work through the uneasy feelings and re-establish the boundaries of the relationship. Caring enough to assure that friends don't have to choose sides or feel uncomfortable when they are in the presence of the tension seems to be an important part of this equation as well.

I am still friends with many of the people I have dated in the past. This causes other problems. Anyone new that you date seems to feel threatened by the fact that you still have a friendship with someone you used to date. Unfortunately, this all boils down to insecurity and attachment issues.

I guess I don't have any answers, because the outcome is defined by the personalities of both parties involved. In my book, it's just a level of maturity.

My current boyfriend said even before we started dating that if I wasn't the type of person who could remain friends even if things don't turn out the way that we want, he didn't want to start a relationship. I tend to feel the same way. If the friendship is important enough, then being uncomfortable to redefine the relationship as necessary is just one of the things that is worth doing as long as it is what is good for both people.

Yes, this issue is really about attachment and letting our thoughts and actions rule how we react when a relationship doesn't turn out the way we wanted or moves on to another stage when we want it to stay the same as it was. Everything changes!

I know I rambled, but I hope you can follow my thoughts. ;)

Algernon said...

Wow!! This post covers so much ground, I don't know where to begin or how to keep it short.

It is entirely natural that an intimate connection with a sangha member can occur. Why refuse to allow such a connection to flower? Because of ideas or fears about how it will turn out (or how it will be seen)? How sad.

I've had relationships with women who practiced in my sangha. They did not last, but while we were together it was wonderful, mutually supporting each other's practice and paying attention to what was going on for us even as the relationships were clearly changing. I've also seen several relationships that began among sangha members turn into healthy and lasting marriages.

On the other hand, when I was running a Zen Center in Los Angeles, I worked closely with a housemaster who was slightly younger than me. We were both single males in a place where many attractive women visited; we also understood we were, as residents and leaders of the sangha, de facto authority figures there. As a rule, we did not ask out women who came to the Zen Center because of our position there, and our desire that women feel like they could go there without catching that kind of attention from staff. It was not always an easy rule to keep. Oh my goodness, it was not. This meant, however, we had to make a concerted effort to have a social life outside of the Zen Center. Which we did -- and ended up marrying people who were not connected to the Zen Center.

Nathan said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. I agree with Algernon's point about being careful if you are in a position within the community that has some authority behind it - or a strong appearance of such anyway.

Buddhaswall - Remaining friends is great when it happens, but also not always possible from my experience. I can think of a few folks within my sangha that have pulled that off, which is great.

But the way I see it, it's most important to, if you are both part of the same spiritual community, to commit to being kind and civil with each other no matter what. That you're willing to try and embody the ethics and values of your practice, even if in the end, you really are never "close" to each other again.

Connor, no doubt I have sat many periods of zazen working through break up experiences. It's definitely a resilience training!