An Exploration in Tantric Relationship
We had taken to using the word ‘monogamish’ because nothing else seemed to fit. Our church friends wouldn’t call us monogamous, because our sexuality could sometimes include others. (Not that we told our church friends!) Perhaps most obviously, living in the vocation of tantric massage, sensual massage, and other work of the sacred intimate, it would be ludicrous to call our sexual energy exclusive.
We batted around some other labels: polyamory, ethical-non-monogamy, open, swingers, relationship anarchy. Nothing quite fit, nor captured the unique devotion we feel toward each other. The squish of monogamish seemed best.
Deepening in tantric spiritual practice and philosophy, I came to understand that there was another factor at play. Labels are normally thought to be the way we use words to describe or point to reality, but in the classical Tantric view, labels construct our conventional reality. Our conventional reality, of course, is not real at all. Conventional reality is a prison that we build around ourselves using the materials of everything that is ever said to us, and everything that happens to us. Our parents, teachers, and peers; movies, television, videos, books, and games; our own actions, our mistakes, our triumphs — all of this feeds into a mental ‘matrix’ that forms an illusionary reality that we think is real. Concepts beget assumptions; assumptions breed expectations; expectations become obligations. As humans, we all end up in service to our own unconscious collection of illusions.
Some of the hardest walls and toughest locks in this prison are made from ‘I am’ statements.
I am a Christian.
I am married.
I am a good person.
Once upon a time, these were statements of my identity. Each of these labels came with a mass of assumptions, unexamined expectations, and untested beliefs about what was allowed and what was forbidden, what was right and what was wrong.
In my conscious mind I held these beliefs about what kind of person I was, and more importantly, what kind of behaviors were expected of a person in this particular matrix.
But I didn’t exactly act in line with my own expectations… so eventually I had to add:
I am a terrible Christian. I am an unfaithful husband. I am a bad person.
As I made one choice, and then another, that was out of alignment with what I believed was my identity, it was the first hint that in my core self, I might not agree with the beliefs I espoused.
Yet my conscious mind, clinging to the expectations I had established for myself, still recited these judgmental scripts. As you can see, I was reinforcing my prison quite effectively.
One of the things about constructing this inner model is that it can never perfectly match reality itself. Not even the most enlightened and awakened saint can make their cognitive model perfectly reflect reality. For true freedom? The only answer is a complete prison break.
Eventually, our illusions become unsustainable in the face of reality, and we set about the work of rewriting our story.
In most cases, all we are doing is imprisoning ourself in a new cage: I am no good at marriage. I am not made for romantic relationships.
In my own life, the new narrative of an unsuitable nature for romantic involvement hit reality again. I fell in love — deeply in love. This new relationship was marked by honesty, by vulnerability. We laid ourselves bare to each other, the good and the bad. We determined to build our reality from the ground up.
I am… what? What am I?
Determined not to build myself into the same corner, and with a partner similarly committed, we examined relationship models and felt into which relationship agreements might work for us.
This could easily have led down the path of constructing a new prison out of new and more sophisticated labels: “I am in a relationship that is emotionally monogamous as clarified in appendix A, using a communication model adapted from the NVC model, detailed in appendix B, and ethically non-monogamous under certain conditions specified in appendix C.” That kind of thing.
Fortunately, it all seemed too heavy for what we were experiencing directly, and we lazily went for ‘monogamish.’
Tantric philosophy holds that everything we think we know about reality — and ourselves — is necessarily wrong. Or at best, incomplete — and probably also misguided and distracting from true reality.
Layer after layer, beginning with basic labels, then constructing fundamental ideas, architecting vast cognitive structures, with our myriad unconscious assumptions wrapping it all up in a bow: each of us has built our own inner Matrix. This “self” that I think I know so well: it’s just an idea that I’ve pieced together, without much attention, based on things I’ve absorbed from the words, actions, and attitudes of others, and from my own unseen judgments.
What might it be like to try extract our attention from this prison of labels and the constructs built of them? To awaken our consciousness to a more guided awareness?
What might it be like to try to love that way?
So my Beloved and I began an experiment: Love without labels.
I don’t consider myself anything when it comes to my relationship.
Our story is not already written for us in advance. We write it together, day by day.
Instead of relying on a label that might come with a complicated (or worse: implicit) contract creating and perhaps reifying relationship norms, we choose to act from a place of purity of heart, from respect for each other, from honesty, and (as close as we can come!) from direct engagement with reality. Reality meaning what is — what is in our individual minds and hearts and desires.
Not being awakened Buddhas, this is still a work in progress. But it isn’t the lazy, loose or negligent approach to relationship you might imagine. We find it perfectly reasonable to have well-considered, well-communicated agreements. Yes, we can change those agreements at any time, after respectful discussion, but that is certainly not unique to us. In practice, our approach might not seem terribly different from other efforts at ethical non-monogamy.
What is truly important is that these agreements do not define what we are, either as individuals or as partners, nor are they the by-product of personal or relational identity statements. They function as intentions for how we will honor ourselves, and each other. Like every couple, we find ourselves in painful misalignment from time to time. But instead of having predetermined rules that dictate the resolution, or specific outcomes that we strive to achieve or avoid, we live our way back to what is.
Beginning with a premise and commitment to both personal freedom and personal responsibility, life can bubble up in ways that change our desires. As time goes by, personal growth takes us into new curiosities and satisfies old ones. We consider the prospect of discussing such things exciting, and a source of new learning about ourselves and each other. It never puts our partnership at risk of fracturing because how could it, when it was not set in stone to begin with?
At the very most fundamental and essential level, we spend time together, share space together, share finances together, make love together… because we desire to do so. That doesn’t mean anything other than what those words say. We desire to collaborate on life.
I don’t desire any other romantic relationships… right now. Maybe next month I will. If that desire comes up, maybe I will act on it. Or maybe I won’t.
When such desires come up, I bring it up with my partner as one of many aspects of my own evolving self, and we discuss it together. We don’t see such conversations as threatening. From our vantage as practitioners of Tantra, we both have a love of the human form and the human psyche, and an appreciation for masculine and feminine energies and for desire and attraction in all its forms. These are things we celebrate: in ourselves, in each other, and in all others. We are comfortable fully experiencing all sources and moments of arousal and desire and savoring the deliciousness of it, without feeling any need to act on it.
If a new romantic or sexual connection happens, it doesn’t mean that we are switching from one relationship structure to another, because the “structure” is just an idea, a name, a label that we have already left behind.
Even an open ended term like “relationship anarchy” still carries some collection of assumptions and expectations around non-commitment that begins to rebuild the prison of expectations on self and other. Besides the vague label of “monogamish,” there simply isn’t a canned relationship structure that captures our intentions and our way of being with ourselves and with each other.
A decision for one of us to embark on a new romantic relationship might not be an easy conversation to have, because we might discover that we have desires that don’t mesh well together. But, in a “worst case scenario” — if we chose to discontinue our collaboration and commitment to journeying through day-to-day life together — it would mean we are actually pursuing our desires.
I don’t want make light of this. It would be a very painful experience. But it would not be the end of what I am, nor of what she is — or even of what we are. It would simply be another shared experience of change and discovery, in a long line of shared experiences of change and discovery
Put another way, neither of us are attached to a particular outcome for our partnership.
In my role leading a Tantra community, I used to use this example of unattachment in some of my teachings, but subsequently steered away from it. Too many people jumped to the conclusion that we must be about to break up.
This assumption couldn’t be further from the truth! But it’s a perfect illustration, I think, of the immense power that labels have over our reality.
The beauty of love without labels is that it works regardless of the specific relationship agreements in play. Celibacy: I am celibate becomes I choose to keep my emotional and sexual energy to myself right now. Monogamy: I am monogamous becomes I reserve my emotional and sexual energy for myself and my spouse at this time. The transition from categorical identity statements to present-moment actions is a powerful act of personal liberation — even if those choices never waver. Tantra invites us to stay alive with our conscious decisions in the present moment, rather than deaden into contracted assumptions and expectations ossified from past choices.
Love without labels has as many shifts and turns as the weather. When we stop trying to pin ourselves to an arbitrary label with arbitrary expectations that have no real relationship to our own natural inclinations or desires–and that make no accommodation for the ebb and flow of health, hormones, state of mind, season, moon, and weather, and sense of self — a lot can fluctuate. Some times our intimacy is a little more remote. Sometimes our various work lives or interests draw our attention in different directions.
But by feeling the truth and depth of what we feel each day, and giving each other the freedom to do the same, it so happens that we discover, over and over, the great joy and beauty that is a love freely chosen in each present moment.
To help demonstrate the fluidity of this, let me make a confession.
We got married.
(It was a late afternoon ceremony on a restored vintage ferryboat on Seattle’s Lake Union. No sooner had I arrived at the boat that I realized I forgot to bring the marriage certificate. I had to drive through rush hour traffic, both ways, so by the time the vows were spoken, it was sunset, and the wedding party had already opened the wine to keep everyone’s spirits lively while the fiasco was resolved. It was perfect — the ceremony unfolded in the best possible evening sun, with a joyfully relieved gathering of friends and family.)
So: is it possible to be serious about letting go of “I am” statements when, quite clearly, according to the laws of Washington State, I am married? When she is my wife, and I am her husband? What freedom can we claim when we have uttered vows to each other in the presence of our families and whatever divinities were listening in?
I struggled with my own expectations around the concept of vows for many years after my first marriage dissolved, greatly disappointing my second major life partner by declining to enter into such promises again.
Then a very wise counselor suggested to me that vows need not be a contract that binds, but rather a statement of intention that inspires.
And so it was. Yes, in one moment, we were filled with the desire to put everything we had into this collaboration. Even after I forgot the marriage certificate, she held that intention; and looking at this Goddess, glowing in the autumn sunset, I had no doubt. One year passed, then two, and still we continue to feel that intention as the truth of each moment. Today, neither of us can remember the date of our anniversary without checking a calendar. It’s not the logistics of the wedding ceremony that are important to us, but rather the intention of our marriage as an expression of our commitment and our love.
I am married.
In ordinary language, this is a fact according to the laws of Washington State. But it is not my identity.
I don’t think of myself first and foremost as a husband; I hold myself as a centered, loving, independent man. And I look at her, and I love her, and I choose to be right where I am.
Once we relinquish the stories of marriage and relationship that have been inflicted upon us by accumulated tradition, we discover that the labels have no power over us. We are drawn together again and again, not by authority nor obligation nor any sense of duty or honor, but by a force as ineluctable and mysterious as gravity.
Our orbits are never far, and sometimes we capture a comet or two, but our light dances through the starry night, an eternal present, world without end.
Note: for more about how we embody this, see The Realm of Love.