Mindful sexual relationships

We’ve been reviewing the five precepts for laypeople with an eye to training our unconscious impulses through our conscious behavior. Today, we look at the third precept:

I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.

This training rule is a difficult one to practice mindfulness with, because it it touches on one of our most basic instincts: #1 is survival, and #2 is procreation, even if we have no personal desire to produce offspring. The imperative to go through the motions of procreation seems to have no natural limit. What we can hope for is to become free of compulsion by seasoning our basic instincts with wisdom and compassion.

As an ethical precept, the avoidance of sexual misconduct means striving to refrain from causing harm through our sexuality, even unintentionally. Rather than defining sexual misconduct in terms of any specific sexual behavior, the emphasis is on considering the impact the behavior can have on others and oneself. It means taking into account much more than the particular sexual activity one may be involved in. …

Renunciation is an important part of healthy sexuality. Renunciation is the capacity to let go of any desire which might cause suffering and hurt. Without being able to let go of sexual desire, there is no freedom. Spiritual freedom is not to be free to act on our desires; it is being free to choose wisely which desires to act on. It is to be free of compulsive desires. …

Sexual behavior and sexual relationships are among the most complicated, multifaceted aspects of our inner psychological life and outer inter-personal life. Sex and sexuality involve hormones, social conditioning, beliefs, motivations, emotions, and the mysterious activity of “chemistry” between people. Sex is seldom about simple pleasure. To be mindful of our sexuality is to begin to unpack all the complexity it comes with. As the different aspects of this complex stew are seen clearly, we can learn where our freedom is found in relationship to it. (Gil Fronsdal, from https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/freedom-through-the-third-precept/)

As with any other object of our desire, we mistakenly believe that “if only” we had this experience or could date that person, we would be satisfied; we’d feel happy and fulfilled. However, there is no sensual experience of any kind that can provide lasting satisfaction, and if we attend to our experience with mindfulness, we can discover this ourselves.

Our expectations become distorted by our own desires and the encouragement of many sectors of our culture. We might imagine that the person with the most sexually desirable (to us) partner is the happiest person in the world, but of course reality is more complicated.

Our experiences, especially those from early in our life, form the subconscious conditions that can drive us towards various sexual explorations. We have the ability to accept and look into our drives and desires, sorting out causes and results where we can, and identifying wholesome and unwholesome behaviors. Every time we set our intention on wholesome outcomes, we are bending our subconscious towards awakening.

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Learning generosity

It might be worth re-visiting the Buddha’s five precepts for laypeople with an eye to how they can affect our unconscious habits. If we think of greed, hatred, and delusion as three streams running in our sub-conscious, then generosity, kindness, and clarity are likewise streams that exist below the surface. It’s a question of gradually diverting energy from the first three into the second three.

Generosity, kindness, and clarity tend to be less noisy in our experience than their opposites. There’s nothing like a flood of anger to get our attention! But if we train our awareness to look towards our natural goodness, we can come to rest in these quieter channels.

The second precept is: I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered or given.

As with all five of the precepts, the wording implies that restraint is the first step. We experience the feeling of wanting something — and then what happens? Do we go into an internal monologue about how we deserve to have this thing? Do we neglect to consider what having the thing will feel like in the days and weeks to follow? What does the experience of greed feel like in the body? How urgent is it? We can discover our own motives and thought-habits by investigating them with mindfulness. The restraint we need is just enough to avoid acting unthinkingly in response to a moment of greed, whether it’s a temptation to take or to purchase something.

From Gil Fronsdal: By wording the second precept “not taking what is not given,” the Buddhist tradition presents a higher standard and greater clarity for ethical behavior than simply “not stealing.” From this standpoint, things have to be clearly and freely offered before we take something. This precludes relying on ambiguity, deceit, force, exploitation or intimidation to acquire what belongs to others. No matter how small or how low in monetary value, if it isn’t given, we don’t take it. When practiced thoroughly, this precept extends to not borrowing something without permission. (https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/the-second-precept-a-source-of-happiness/)

The most obvious way in which to break this precept is to steal something physical, regardless of size. As Gil says in the article quoted above, just because pencils and pads are freely offered at work doesn’t mean taking a pile and distributing them to our friends and relatives is OK.

Sometimes we are greedy in how we treat others, trying to get satisfaction for ourselves with a minimum of consideration for others. Do we take time and energy from others when they haven’t been offered?

By stepping back from our greedy impulses, we make a space for generosity and care to appear. We look up from our wanting so we can see what other factors are in play, how we might be affecting other people or our own future. With the benefit of applied mindfulness in the moment greed seizes us, we can re-direct some energy from the greed stream to the generosity stream.

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Conscious and unconscious

Recently a wise teacher reminded me that the only way we can change our unconscious habits is to bring mindfulness to what we are doing now. With heightened awareness of the choices we are making, we can gradually re-program our ingrained tendencies. Each time we act on our generous impulses, we counter our greed; each time we replace a critical or angry thought with a kinder one, we replace a bit of sub-conscious hatred with kindness; when we can step back from our self-involvement and take a broadly compassionate view, we disable a bit of our delusion and add to our inclination towards wisdom.

This is a fundamental part of the Buddha’s teachings: we start with raising our awareness of what we are doing and its effects on ourselves and others. If we act unthinkingly, from our subconscious habits, we are likely to keep making the same assumptions and mistakes over and over again. If we bring mindfulness to ALL of our actions, to our words, and even to our thinking process, we can start to discard what we recognize as unwholesome and cultivate wholesome alternatives.

This may sound like “too much effort”, but in fact mindfulness can bring freshness to our experience. Instead of behaving by rote habit, everything can become new as we discover more and more perspectives. Staying rooted in the body, as it is NOW, checking in with the breath – these can help us stay focused on the present.

The Buddha provided guidelines for assessing what is wholesome and skilful vs. what is not, and it starts with the 5 precepts:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from harming living beings;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from from sensual/sexual misconduct;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech;
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.

When we undertake a training rule, we are deliberately making an attempt to improve a particular “muscle” or skill; we set our intention in a clear direction. If we decide to explore the idea of not harming living beings, we are taking on a comprehensive plan. Not only do we commit to not physically striking other sentient beings (people, dogs, [insects?]), we also notice when the impulse arises to crush someone’s dreams with our words. We choose not to purposely harm someone’s feelings with criticism or insults. The effects of psychological damage can be as long-lasting as physical, sometimes more. We sensitize ourselves to the internal monologue that calls ourselves or other people clueless, idiotic, hopeless, or worthless. Those thoughts have a power that can lead us astray in our words and deeds.

As another wise friend once directed me: “Listen to yourself!” We may not always like what we hear, but if we bring mindfulness to our ordinary walking-around consciousness, we will discover both our wholesome and our unwholesome tendencies. We can choose to patiently re-train our unwholesome impulses and feel confident in our wholesome words, actions, and thoughts.

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Mindfulness with Joy

In previous posts, we have considered the five hindrances as objects for cultivating mindfulness and come now to their companion list: the seven factors of awakening. They are:

  1.  mindfulness
  2. investigation-of-states
  3. energy
  4. joy
  5. tranquility
  6. concentration
  7. equipoise

Gil Fronsdal has said: By recognizing these seven factors as mental states [already] operating in daily life we can then understand that meditation relies on ordinary capacities we already have rather than the introduction of new abilities foreign to our experience. In this way we may be able to access these seven mental states as they already live inside of us. Once accessed, we can develop them further. (https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/the-ordinary-and-the-seven-factors-of-awakening/)

If the hindrances keep us bound to our clinging, the awakening factors beckon us forward, towards letting go and letting be. They are laid out both as steps in a meditative progression and as ordinary states that may arise at any time, during any activity. The hindrances can feel sticky and “heavy”, while we experience the awakening factors as lighter forms of presence untethered to clinging. Because the physical sensations associated with the awakening factors are more subtle than the those associated with the hindrances, we are prone to not noticing them. If we train ourselves to watch for them, however, they will appear.

Bhikkhu Anālayo suggests that we can experience joy (the middle awakening factor) simply through the absence of the hindrances. If we make a habit of noticing when greed and hatred are in abeyance, a subtle form of joy can be discerned. A related experience of joy is simply the act of being mindful. Even if the object of our mindfulness is unpleasant, being fully in the present is its own type of joy.

Let’s consider how each of the awakening factors could describe both a meditative state of mind and a more active state.

Mindfulness is the starting point. We bring our awareness into our bodies and leave off dreaming of things not present. Anālayo Bhikkhu uses the acronym SAP, that is: soft, awake presence. We can check for mindfulness at any time, and we can cultivate the ability to bring ourselves into this state at will.

Investigation-of-states is where we direct our mindfulness. We inquire deeply into our physical and mental experience, openly and truthfully. Whether sitting in meditation or doing something else, this is analogous to applying a magnifying glass to our experience.

Energy in this context is most like persistence. It’s not the physical, squeezing effort to keep our bodies rigid, but a willingness to return again and again to our direct experience.

Joy can be felt whenever we are fully present and know that we are.

Tranquility is a sweet calmness that can come from knowing that we are joyfully in the present.

Concentration reflects a collected mind; it’s the opposite of scattered attention.

Equipoise is a stable and rewarding feeling that can come when our energies are in balance.

All of these states are transitory; no one gets to live in them all the time. But if we are alert to these subtle pleasures, they can lead us to a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, our lives.

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Mindfulness with doubt

It may seem unlikely that we could be mindful of doubt or confusion, but it is possible and offers a rich area for investigation. When we’ve laid our doubts to rest we can experience a deep faith in the path and confidence in our ability to walk it.

We all undertake mindfulness practice with some level of doubt, either in the teachings or in ourselves. We may not understand that, like any practice, development takes patience and persistence. If we attempt to establish a regular meditation practice, we may have to start over again and again, but even a tiny seed of promise can keep us going. Do we know someone who has benefitted from practice? Are there practitioners or teachers who inspire us? Have we read convincing evidence?

“Hindering doubt” is not the same as “questioning doubt.” Doubt as a hindrance leads to inaction and giving up. Questioning doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand. It can, in fact, be helpful for mindfulness practice. A questioning attitude encourages deeper investigation. It is a healthy doubt that can overcome complacency and loosen preconceived ideas.

Hindering doubt takes many forms. It can be doubt in the practice, in the teachings, in one’s teachers, and, most dangerously, in oneself. Doubt may not appear until one is actually beginning to practice. A person may spend months happily anticipating a meditation retreat only, upon arrival, to doubt whether it is the right place, time, or retreat to be on. (from Gil Fronsdal,  https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/the-five-hindrances-handouts/doubting-doubt-practicing-with-the-final-hindrance/)

The danger of doubt as a hindrance is that it can persuade us either that the practice is not legitimate or that we are incapable of carrying it out. We might give up in hopelessness, or pursue another practice that promises (often falsely) quick results. We might feel that picking and choosing our practices on a daily basis suits us better, but experience has shown that sampling different paths, none of them in depth, usually leads to frustration.

We can address hindering doubt by studying the teachings of the Buddha, which may increase our understanding and motivate us. There are many teachings available through every available medium – audio or video recordings, primary (Pali canon) or secondary sources in books, etc. Practicing with others is also potentially supportive.

How do we know if our mindfulness practice is working? It’s not through unusual or spectacular experiences during meditation. Instead …

… the question is whether our ability to face difficulties and handle problems improves. Patience and understanding, as well as a gradual opening of the heart and a willingness to reach out to others, are important signposts. (Bhikkhu Anālayo, Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation: A Practice Guide, p.165)

Bhikkhu Anālayo also posits that mindfulness is like a mirror in which our own mindstates are reflected. Powerful mindfulness can be like a magnifying mirror, allowing us to see details that are usually obscured. If we recognize the hindrances – greed, hatred, sloth-and-torpor, restlessness-and-worry, and doubt – in ourselves and others, we will be better able to see and release the clinging that causes dukkha.


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Mindfulness with agitation

Within the context of cultivating mindfulness of dharmas/principles/phenomena, we’re considering the hindrances. Today’s work involves the hindrance of “restlessness-and-worry”, the fourth of the five. To start with, let’s distinguish this hindrance from generalized anxiety, a spectrum of mental illness from mild to extreme that requires professional support. Restlessness-and-worry is a temporary mindstate that all of us experience from time to time. It involves a body that feels too agitated to be at ease, whether from excitement or fear, and a mind that is speeding uncomfortably, often in circles. A state of restlessness-and-worry prevents us from thinking clearly and from meditating deeply. Applying mindfulness to restlessness-and-worry when it’s present can reveal both the cause(s) and help us develop strategies to reduce the problem.

This wisdom is from Gil Fronsdalhttps://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/the-five-hindrances-handouts/the-hindrance-of-restlessness-worry/ )

Frustrated desire and pent-up aversion are common causes of agitation. Fear and resentment are others. Dissatisfaction is a cause that can keep the mind restless with searching. Trying too hard in meditation can also stir up the mind. When any of these are primary, it can be more useful to be mindful of them than the restlessness. Ignoring the causes can keep us skimming the surface; being mindful of the underlying causes can help with the settling.

Sometimes we’re anxious about a particular event in the future – a scheduled performance, a deadline, a job application, or about something we regret in the past. Whether one of these is a cause or whether our agitation arises from something more obscure to us, we can look into any current body/mind state.

As with each of the hindrances, we’re invited to trace back the thoughts and sensations of restless-and-worry to what came before. Were we imagining how we might be judged? Were we worried about something that might or might not happen in the future? Did we see or hear something that sparked an unsettling memory? Did we remember something we’d done that we wish we hadn’t? What was the immediate trigger for our mind’s arrival “here”, in this state? If we can identify a cause, even a partial one, we are halfway to a remedy.

Sometimes, we can recognize the thought that is causing the trouble and know that a thought is just a thought; it only has the power that we give it right now. We can check the counterfactuals: do I know that I’ll fail at X? Do I know that she resents me? Or am I imagining something that may or may not be true? We can wonder if others remember things in the same way we do (hint: that’s almost never the case).

… One of the more profound skills for working through restlessness and worry is to let go of the beliefs that keep them going. Strong opinions about what is or is not supposed to be happening incite the mind; judgments of good and bad seldom lead to calm. (Gil Fronsdal)

When our minds are not clear, we can create endless troubles for ourselves. With mindfulness we can re-focus, let go of what’s unhelpful, and simply be with what is.

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Mindfulness with low energy

In the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, which we’re using as a guide for the moment, hindrances three and four (out of five) have to do with energy, too little and too much. We are encouraged to be mindful of the hindrance of sloth-and-torpor.

From Gil Fronsdal (https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/the-five-hindrances-handouts/the-hindrance-of-sloth-and-torpor/):

Sloth and torpor are forces in the mind that drain vitality and limit effort. Sloth manifests as a physical absence of vitality. The body may feel heavy, lethargic, weary, or weak. It may be difficult to keep the body erect when meditating. Torpor is a mental lack of energy. The mind may be dull, cloudy, or weary. It easily drifts in thought. Being caught in sloth or torpor can resemble slogging through deep mud. When this hindrance is strong, there is not even enough mindfulness to know we’ve fallen in.

In the Pali canon, this hindrance is usually considered in the context of seated meditation practice, where we can more easily examine the elements of our current physical and mental state. We know when sloth-and-torpor is present and when it is absent. We may be able to trace at least some of the causes that brought this state about.

Sometimes we are simply too physically tired from exertion or illness to generate the mental energy for insight practice. At such times we can either take a nap (if feasible) or develop the “divine states”, that is: lovingkindness, compassion, shared joy, or equanimity. If you suffer from long-term chronic illness, I recommend the work of Toni Bernhard (https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/experts/toni-bernhard-jd).

There are other possible causes for sloth-and-torpor. Some of them are: judging the current experience as “boring”, self-pity, complacency, or the drop-off in energy that comes when we suddenly don’t have lust or aversion as stimulation. From Gil Fronsdal: “Chronic sloth and torpor may represent a lack of meaning or purpose in life. In this case, the antidote might involve taking time for deep inner reflection or thoughtful conversations with wise friends.”

As with the other hindrances, mindfulness gives us a set of tools to make sloth-and-torpor workable. Just acknowledging its presence is a good start. Investigating what the causes might be will raise some interest, which is associated with energy. We might discover assumptions or judgments that are suppressing our energy in some way.

It’s important to keep on practicing, while sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. We can see sloth-and-torpor as one of several recognizable states that come and go. We can choose to identify with it or not; we can let it pass by or we can get stuck into it. The light of mindfulness allows us to see clearly and make a choice.

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