Is Compersion a Form of Sexual Mudita?

imageOn 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.

Conclusion

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.

Links

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

Polyamory  and Non-monogamy terminology and concepts from Wikipedia.

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13 comments on “Is Compersion a Form of Sexual Mudita?

  1. I enjoyed this post, it is a subject I have thought about before.

    I am not a polyamorist but I have always had an open attitude in sexual relationships and no problem with a partner of mine having sex with others, as long as this is done responsibly (i.e. protected sex all around).

    I am not quite sure I would class the positive or pleasant feelings experienced by those of us so inclined in this way toward partners partnering with other partners as “mudita.” In my experience, mudita is somewhat detached, almost paternal, ad totally selfless. You take joy in the joy of another person that has nothing to do with you. For me, sexual non-jealousy and “happy sharing” is not as noble or “pure.” At least personally, I find imagining or watching a partner have sex with someone else to be a sexual turn-on. If I am attracted to someone, seeing them in “sexual mode” with another person gives me a vantage point on their sexual behavior I would not otherwise get to have. I get to witness the “hunt” and the “capture” from within a different psychology than I have when I am the “hunted.”

    I disagree with the assertion/theory that in order to enjoy or experience compersion without jealousy requires a significant amount of polyamorous sexual experience. My sexual experience in general is relatively limited–I have had significantly fewer partners than most people I know–and I have never been in a “true” polyamorous relationship. This open attitude toward non-monogamy seems to be more a matter of personality in my case. Even before becoming a practicing Buddhist, I’ve tended to be of a more detached personality. That in turn contributes to my not having as many sexual relationships as others; I tend to be somewhat solitary and only pursue a relationship if there is something deeply compelling about it to me.

    I have experienced jealousy in a sexual context but it had to do with a situation where I felt like I was on the “outside” of a developing relationship between my partner and another woman. I felt like emotional things I wanted to share with him were not being shared with me but with someone else. I did not like that at all, or the lack of communication and openness. So I have doubts I would function well in a truly “polyamorous” relationship. BUT I enjoy a relationship that isn’t fully monogamous. I would say my ideal situation is one in which the deep emotional bond of romantic love between my partner and I is exclusive, but sex is not. I like witnessing him have sex with someone else or hearing about the experience; I like to feel like I am part of it in some peripheral way. So this is not in the same category as “selfless joy,” though I think it shares some qualities in common with it.

    I do not feel like I own a partner or that I am owned by them, I take pleasure in my partner’s happiness and freedom to be whoever he is. I have enough detachment not to see myself as or to want to be the center of my partner’s universe. But I also don’t like feeling like I am on the outside of a significant part of my partner’s emotional life; whatever his experiences are that are sexual/romantic that are not with me, I want to be shared with me. I like the extension of my own immediate experience. Hearing about and/or witnessing what a man experiences as he pursues a woman gives me a vicarious experience of something I otherwise would never be able to experience, and I find it very sexually thrilling. This is in a very different realm than mudita IMO.

    • Thanks Alan. The excerpts from the articles are interesting. I’m not surprised that Tricycle got some flack for putting it out there. If we can’t even talk or write about something-words being only a provisional representation of reality-how can we actually face human reality? I hope the topic continues in many other quarters.

  2. Hi Stephanie.

    Your take on the situation is interesting. The point of gaining something from the relationship of one’s partner and another is what I was talking about by exhilaration. Not truly mudita. I agree with that.

    I think what has to be partnered with compersion is a strong sense of equanimity. That requires a very thorough self-examination to develop in sexual and relationship contexts. That’s also why I do think it’s fairly rare. Most of us can’t even maintain equanimity over a selection of breakfast cereal.

    I also agree that an understanding of or participation in polyamorous situations is not a prerequisite to understanding compersion. My personal viewpoint is one of serial monogamy. I do not expect a partner to necessarily have the same viewpoint. And that has been the case in all my relationships including my marriage and my current long standing situation. It doesn’t affect me negatively because it’s something understood and discussed and involves mutual respect. In every situation I was and am free to engage in other relationships as well but have always chosen not to. It takes a lot of energy to balance that kind of situation and I’d prefer to put my energy into other things like study, creative endeavors, Buddhist practice, education, travel, social causes and so on. I’d be quite fine to be a celibate, as I did for 6 years in my late 20’s. Am just not all that attached to sex or relationships in general. It’s nice to have an intimate companion but just as nice not to.

    That being said I’ll give you an example that takes the compersion situation a little deeper than sex, because it is deeper than that. I got married to someone who I knew was non-monogamous. We did maintain a mutually monogamous marriage for 5 years. Then he met someone who became his mistress. I was actually a little surprised it took that long (I am chuckling as I write that). It went on for a few years and it was really good for him because he discovered something about himself that he had been denying for a long time.

    When we got married he knew there would be no chance of having children. He was fine with that as he was not in a situation stable enough to deal with progeny. And since I had at 27 gotten a tubal ligation (sterilized) my decision against having children was pretty firm. What he realized from that other relationship was that he really deeply did have a desire to parent. He would not have been able to realize that, express it or act on it with me. But the only way that could have been acknowledged was through a close relationship that could provide an opening to let that manifest.

    The upshot is now he is remarried, with two gorgeous children who he would just die for. I am happy for that. I have my own situation which is quite enjoyable and fulfilling in it’s own way as well.

    There is nothing resentful, jealous, left out or anything else of that nature. Had that longing in him not been developed and expressed I’d be left with a partner who felt unfulfilled and probably would not know why. That’s the kind of situation that builds into resentments, anger and a lot of unpleasant undercurrents.

    So I think compersion is more than some vicarious sexual thrills. As with mudita it goes right to the heart of people’s experience of themselves, others and life.

  3. Hi, Nel.

    Most of the stuff here is completely over my head, but I just wanted to say that I very much enjoyed seeing you dance… in a mudita way sort of way, you understand.

    Regards,

    H.

  4. Myself, I take a fairly conservative point of view in regards to sexuality. So, personally, in all frankness, I think compersion sounds strange, in no way that I could say seemed like a “good vibe,” to me, especially when framed with that sensationalistic keynote from Aaron Muszalski. In more succinct terms: It honestly strikes me as just another form of peevish voyeurism.

    I consider that the life of anyone whom I’ve had a relationship with is not so much “my business”, other than to maintain some modicum of fair interaction with whom – inasmuch as either necessity or coincidental circumstance may occasion.

    If the life of anyone whom I have a relationship with, actively, if it would be “my business”, then, but that “business” – as I see it – extends no further than my own part of interacting with whom – such that would generally not include, fantasizing about whom.

    I do appreciate that this matter of “the Dharma of sexuality” has been brought to discussion, however. I’m afraid that my terse tone, at this, might not otherwise have seemed to indicate that. I believe they say, Gassho.

    • thanks as always for your comment Sean. I too on some scale might be deemed somewhat conservative in my personal choices. But I like to bring forward other opinions on this blog partly because Buddhists think and live in all different sorts of ways-there is not “one” absolute opinion or life choice and also because in those differing viewpoints people also try to apply some Buddhist principles so as to engender a more equitable situation for themselves and others.

      I don’t know if Aaron is sensationalistic. He is enthusiastic about his life I’d say. And happy with it and cares very much that those he is involved with are happy also.

      I guess the point is there’s a whole range of attitudes people may have and all of them can be informed by the Buddhadharma.

  5. Just want to thank you again for this post. And especially for the compassion of celebrating a path or practice that you yourself wouldn’t necessarily choose. “Compersion” — amazing to put a name to a feeling I’ve had my whole life, that has until recently made me feel so profoundly misunderstood, guilty, and wrong.

    Hope you’re well!

  6. Pingback: Is Compersion a Form of Sexual Mudita? | watching me watching you

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