On Saturday self-described “Burning Man builder, VFX artist/educator, polyglamorous social connector, DIY culture evangelist, anarcho-Dada Buddhist biker punk” @sfslim aka Aaron Muszalski posted something on Twitter, which then appeared on Facebook, and brought significant commentary. He wrote:
Compersion is a hell of an aphrodisiac.
This term compersion was not something I had heard before. It seems to have originated in San Francisco among the polyamory community. Fortunately in the Facebook comments he posted the link to Compersion at Wikipedia. As listed on that page the term means variously:
- the positive feelings one gets when a lover is enjoying another relationship. Sometimes called the opposite or flip side of jealousy.
- the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others you love share among themselves, especially taking joy in the knowledge that your beloveds are expressing their love for one another.
- A feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship. … Compersion does not specifically refer to joy regarding the sexual activity of one’s partner, but refers instead to joy at the relationship with another romantic and/or sexual partner. It’s analogous to the joy parents feel when their children get married, or to the happiness felt between best friends when they find a partner.
- the ability to turn jealousy’s negative feelings into acceptance of, and vicarious enjoyment for, a lover’s joy.
What struck me about these definitions is that they have a striking resemblance to the definitions used for the Buddhist term mudita, which variously means:
- Sympathetic joy
- Happiness at another’s happiness
- Rejoicing in the wellbeing of all others
- Welcoming the good fortune of others.
- It is especially sympathetic or vicarious joy, the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it
Mudita is one of the four Brahmaviharas or four sublime attitudes or four immeasurables, which also include metta or loving-kindness or benevolence, karuna or compassion and upekkha or equanimity.
Of course each of these situations has it’s detrimental opposite. In terms of mudita we have:
The "far enemies" of mudita are jealousy and envy, two mind-states in obvious opposition. Joy’s "near enemy," the quality which superficially resembles joy but is in fact more subtly in opposition to it, is exhilaration, described as a grasping at pleasant experience out of a sense of insufficiency or lack.
In the context of the third precept, not to misuse sex, can mudita be applicable to sexual situations and particularly polyamorous or non-monogamous situations?
Fortunately Aaron supplied a good deal of insight to that question in the commentary following up his initial assertion. I will get to that in a moment, but first I want to discuss the situation of polyamory and other forms of human sexuality and human bonding in terms of that third precept.
Some folks, particularly those with little exposure to the great diversity of human sexuality, or those who would prefer to deny the existence of said diversity or perhaps even some of their own inclinations can take a rather strict approach to the adherence to a strictly utilitarian biological function of sex. That means man on woman for the purpose of procreation and only enough so as to maintain a viable population. This rather narrow viewpoint does not acknowledge the bonding aspects of sex acts nor the complexity of human emotional interaction. For example a recent article called Neuroimaging Love – Romance Is More Scientific Than You Think the authors describe many of the physiological and some psychological effects of attraction:
…meta-analysis revealed that when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopression. The love feeling also affects sophisticated cognitive functions, such as mental representation, metaphors and body image, which may explain why peoples’ abilities and behaviors are all over the psychology map when they are in a new relationship.
Other researchers also found blood levels of nerve growth factor (NGF), the molecule involved in the social chemistry of humans, also increased. NGF levels were significantly higher in couples who had just fallen in love.
[Note: That’s for the factual part. As for the rest of the article, which posits some notions about “curing” heartbreak and so forth via medical/chemical/pharmaceutical/neurological means, there’s already plenty of methods to deal with emotions that don’t rely on such sledgehammer type interventions. And “negative” emotions again being pathologized is not helping people cope, it is enabling denial of large aspects of life-turning people into smiley face zombies. “Oh your relationship sucks, take this, don’t worry, be happy that your life fell apart.” Bullshit! Now back to the factual part.]
To ignore the emotional dimension, even just those brought on by neurochemical changes, by reducing sexual acts to mechanical activity for one specific purpose is to largely ignore human reality. And even by adding science to the mix it still does not fully encompass all that human sexual interaction is or can be. There are socio-cultural factors, aesthetic factors, genetic factors, creative factors, psychological factors and many others.
Fortunately most who have studied the dharma at any length do not deny these elements. It might be opportune to put a lot of quotes by Brad Warner in here, from his new book Sex, Sin and Zen (my review-not unfavorable) but instead I’ll go with some others who might be said to have some knowledge of Buddhadharma.
On the Third Precept, Ven. S. Dhammika has written in response to questions:
Q: The Third Precept says we should avoid sexual misconduct. What is sexual misconduct?
A: If we use trickery, emotional blackmail or force to compel someone to have sex with us, then this is sexual misconduct. Adultery is also a form of sexual misconduct because when we marry we promise our spouse we will be loyal to them. When we commit adultery we break that promise and betray their trust. Sex should be an expression of love and intimacy between two people and when it is it contributes to our mental and emotional well-being.
Q: Is sex before marriage a type of sexual misconduct?
A: Not if there is love and mutual agreement between the two people. However it should never be forgotten that the biological function of sex is to reproduce and if an unmarried woman becomes pregnant it can cause a great deal of problems. Many mature and thoughtful people think it is far better to leave sex until after marriage.
So even celibate monks can have a somewhat liberal interpretation of what constitutes sexual misconduct. Note he does not mention the gender of spouses nor does he condemn any particular activity, only that which would violate trust and relationship and bring on problems. To put it another way those activities and attitudes which would be “unbeneficial”. The point, in whatever I’ve read on the subject, always seems to come down to thinking carefully about one’s activities and considering the potential outcomes in terms of benefit and harmony.
This is very much in accord with what Aaron wrote on the subject as well. As one apparently involved in polyamory, or so I gather from his comments (I’ve not quizzed him personally about his sex life) he delineates the criteria for compersion, and it’s far enemy jealousy, if one is to take compersion as a form of sexual mudita, very thoroughly. I want to put his viewpoint here (with his permission) in it’s entirety because it is so comprehensive and well-thought out. The emphasis on particular points is mine.
As far as jealousy goes, I only consider it negative if it’s left unexamined, making honest, effective communication much more challenging. And even then I would hesitate to label jealousy as "negative"; emotions are part of the human experience, and all of them have something to teach us, so long as we approach them skillfully and without identifying with them.
When approaching jealousy, it can help to view it less like an emotion unto itself, but as a repository for other emotions. (Anger can also be more effectively deconstructed in this way.) As a monolithic whole, the "feeling" we call jealousy can seem overwhelming, justified (as well as self-reinforcing) and entirely insurmountable. But when parsed into its individual components it becomes much less daunting. In fact, sometimes the act of patiently prising apart this complexity of emotion is itself enough to resolve it.
For example, one common component of jealousy is fear. Many different kinds of fear, in fact, often stacked one upon the other. Once these fears have been identified, they can be articulated, either internally as an affirmation (e.g. "I know my fear of X is irrational because of evidence Y"), or externally as a request (e.g. "If you’re going to do X, I would appreciate it if you made sure to Y") or a boundary (e.g. "I’m not okay with X right now").
By systematically addressing the jealousy’s component elements (far more manageable than the monolithic whole) the feeling can gradually be reduced. Over time, some people even find that it disappears entirely, or nearly so. (And that if, on occasion, it arises still, it can be quite easily – and genuinely – dismissed.)
Unsurprisingly, non-monogamous people tend to spend more time developing this ability than monogamous folks, for obvious reasons of necessity. (Though here too it is impossible to generalize: many people who choose non-monogamy do so because of an intrinsically weak jealousy response.) But an ability to work with jealousy is greatly beneficial in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships alike.
Compersion is an excellent example of this. When feelings of jealousy can be easily deconstructed, they no longer overwhelm. And anytime we liberate ourselves from metal reactivity, we create space for acceptance. Acceptance and love. Compersion is simply a fancy word for love. Love of another’s happiness, regardless of the source of that happiness.
My initial comment referred to the heady, intoxicating allure of both giving and receiving compersion. For a lover who truly feels compersion is expressing a degree of trust and confidence that is both incredibly rare and wholly deserving of affirmation, respect and celebration. As well as lots of passionate sex.
Self-awareness, honest (and effective) communication, equality, trust, boundaries, and consent. This is the magic formula. The secret that makes everything possible, whether one colors their life inside or outside of the lines. The increased love of compersion is but one of the gifts of abundance that come from dedicating oneself to this practice.
Upon reflection, I’d change "repository" (above, in the sentence "When approaching jealousy, it can help to view it less like an emotion unto itself, but as a repository for other emotions.") to "superficial manifestation" or "symptom". Like anger, raw jealousy obscures more than it reveals, fuels reactivity and defensiveness, and leads to outcomes that are messy at best, and disastrous at worst.
There isn’t much that can be added to this examination of the topic. It is a topic that I feel should be brought forward to a wider audience which is why I am making this post.
And on another related note, this month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If one has been involved either directly or tangentially in a situation of domestic violence one of the most striking aspects is the prevalence of jealousy in many of the situations. The assumption of sexual and emotional ownership of another person very often fuels or exacerbates tense situations in which insecure individuals may be involved.
That is one of the most important reasons for anyone and everyone to clearly examine their own attitudes and emotions around the subjects of sexuality, relationship, boundaries and respect.
Having the Sex Talk With Yourself
Most people worry about having the sex talk with their parental figures when they are young and with their children should they so decide to become parents later on. But how many people have an honest open sex talk with themselves?
As Aaron pointed out, those involved in non-monogamous situations more frequently will have had to face, and deal with their own sexual and emotional situations as well as those of their partner(s). Taking the time to think this through is beneficial for anyone in any kind of relationship.
It strikes me just by considering people that I know there would be some difficulty initiation such self-examination. If one has lived mainly upon assumptions and all the baggage that goes with them there probably hasn’t been any opportunity to really think this thing through. So what kinds of questions might be involved in such a self-examination? I’ll give a bit of a list and if you think of some more please put them in comments (anonymous comments are accepted).
Gender Identity. What is my gender identity? How do I exemplify that? Where did that come from aside from having a particular set of genitals? Is my view in social accord with that genital set or in contrast to it? Am I comfortable with the way I have been socialized to a particular gender identity? Why or why not? In what ways do I transgress social gender norms for my particular culture? If I do not why not and if I do then why? What is my reaction to another gender [I am writing from India so there is acknowledgement of a “Third Gender” here historically and socially-in a broader context here is another piece on “Third Gender”] or those who express their gender identity in a manner different than I do? If I am uncomfortable with other gender expressions what is causing that?
Sexual Orientation. What is my sexual orientation? Do I consider that fixed or fluid? Has that changed over time (ie.become more self accepting)? What is my feeling about those with different orientations?
Sexual Relations. What form of sexual relationship do I prefer, in terms of monogamy or non-monogamy? Why? What are my feelings about other forms of sexual relations and why?
Relationship Expectations. Do I expect my partner(s) to have similar attitudes about gender, orientation, relations and so on as I do? What if they do not? Can I respect that? Can my partner(s) respect my differing views? Do I view myself as owned by my partner or owning them in terms of sexuality and emotion? (Are they “Mine”? And is that a result of deliberate choice or assumption?) Have I discussed expectations with my partner(s)?
Sexual Interests. What are my sexual interests? Have I or would I like to investigate that further? Will I discuss this with my partner(s)? If not why not?
Openness and Communication. Do I articulate these things to my partner(s)? If not why not? Do I allow an openness so that my partner(s) can articulate these things to me without becoming defensive and/or judgmental?
Well those are some of the areas I’ve come up with off the top of my head. One could go into considerable depth on these topics. If someone is having difficulty examining some of these questions it might be beneficial to talk to a sex positive psychotherapist or counselor in order to get some clear answers.
I do indeed feel that compersion is a form of sexual mudita. But I also feel that to evince that in a relationship requires a very deep self-examination and maturity that most people have not developed.
The obvious pitfall of jealousy arising is clear. But if we look at mudita itself and the near enemy as described at the beginning of this post
exhilaration… a grasping at pleasant experience out of a sense of insufficiency or lack
we can see where a lot of complicated problems might arise. For example are we enjoying our partner’s experience because they are having it or because we are exploiting it for our own pleasure? Are we participating in a situation in order to assuage our own insecurities in our relationship or because we genuinely wish to participate? I have seen that scenario play out among friends and it is highly destructive to everyone involved.
In any kind of relationship the things that Aaron listed “Self-awareness, honest (and effective) communication, equality, trust, boundaries, and consent” are important. And I think starting with self-awareness is the key.
Mudita:The Buddha’s Teaching on Unselfish Joy-four essays by Nyanaponika Thera, Natasha Jackson, C.F. Knight, and L.R. Oates available on Access to Insight