In the Plum Village tradition of Buddhism, there are five “trainings” that practitioners can commit themselves to in order to help them live a mindful life. The Five Mindfulness Trainings have been a wonderful guide to me for the last eight years. The Third Mindfulness Training, which talks about true love (including sex) has proven to be a life-changing paragraph, especially as a young LGBTQ man. I first discovered the Third Mindfulness Training in 2012, and then stopped practicing it for about a year. I practiced it once again in 2014, and then stopped (again) less than a year later. After a few years of only tepid commitment and engagement with this training, I formally received the Five Mindfulness Trainings for a second time in 2017, and renewed my commitment to practicing the Third Mindfulness Training fully. The last three years have marked a wonderful period of practicing this training. I have experimented, changed, flip-flopped, re-worded, deconstructed, renounced a phrase, re-adopted a phrase, failed, succeeded, leapt for joy, sat consumed with remorse and shame. But I have studied and practiced this training, even through the most tumultuous times of the last three years. I have recited this training (almost) every week for three years, and now with a stable and re-energized practice and a bit more wisdom, a chapter of my practice has ended and I am beginning anew with my relationship to the Third Mindfulness Training. Here is the training:
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.
I have had so many habit energies and wrong views that have created conflicting and contradictory beliefs and actions when it comes to sexuality. My sexuality was what defined me when I was younger, a young gay boy lonely and wanting nothing more than someone to love and someone to love him. I found Buddhism before I found sex, but unfortunately my deep loneliness and craving won out when I discovered Grindr in 2013 (hence the first abandonment of the training). Without a sangha (spiritual community) to sustain me, I saw my commitment to this training fall apart. Recommitting myself in 2017 has allowed me to explore it these last three years, and has taken me on a roller coaster of feelings, habit energies, and deep looking. I am deeply grateful for my suffering and my unskillfulness, as they have been my greatest teachers.
I have only recently begun to take sangha building very seriously, as three years of a daily practice with only intermittent community-building activities have left me understanding just how essential community is to the path of living a mindful and compassionate life. I have allowed myself to go too long with only myself to argue with, engage with, and learn from, at least regularly. I have been filled with misperceptions of the world, and a personal mindfulness practice can only take you so far without the help of a sangha. My practice has nourished me so much these last three years, and now it is time that I fully commit to a life of nourishing it, too, and sharing the practice with those who might benefit from it. This commitment has allowed me to unflinchingly look at what I have learned these last three years, and begin anew.
I have learned that I was, am, and will continue to have wrong views about a lot of things (especially as they relate to sex). I had convinced myself that certain actions were wholesome, that certain habit energies could be strong as they wanted, and that the Buddhist elements of true love can be cultivated in an hour (turns out, it can’t be). Buddhism places a large emphasis on direct experience. We are not expected to take anything on face value, we are to meditate and contemplate our actions and values and come to the conclusions for ourselves. I needed to discover for myself what true love was and wasn’t. I needed to experience what one-sided compassion looked like, how craving affects my behavior and the behaviors of others, and what expressions of true love look like to me. I have spent the last three years practicing, and I am finally ready to begin anew with my relationship to true love.
At first I felt shame and anxiety about this process of beginning anew. Good Buddhists weren’t supposed to take three years to figure this stuff out! One silent retreat is supposed to answer all of life’s questions! No one will think of me as mindful when they know I have made so many mistakes.
Then I realized that making mistakes is exactly what practice is about. I have often had strong perfectionist tendencies in my life, and these habit energies allowed me to forget what mindfulness is all about. Beginning anew in each moment. Not allowing anxiety or shame about my past actions to define my relationship to the present moment, and allowing a clear mind to guide me forward. I realize now that even though I have acted in ways that I would not today, that doesn’t mean I was not practicing. All of that muddy mud of regret comes together to form the gift of understanding and insight. I have been practicing all along.
With that in mind, there is often something special about a publicly made commitment or proclamation in all spiritual traditions. Ceremonies and rituals give concrete instantiations of our lofty spiritual goals and ambitions. Well, this is my way of making it known that I am beginning anew with the Third Mindfulness Training (the other four and I have been on good and solid terms for a long time now). This has been the training that I have understood the least, resisted the most, and now fills me with the most humility on the path of practice.
So what does this mean? Well, it means that I have reshaped my understanding of what true love is. It means I now understand why the training mentions a deep and long-term commitment. Perhaps most importantly, I understand what this understanding means in terms of understanding the way I interact with people and the world. It means doing my best at being much more mindful about how I use words, images, and actions to express my sexuality (no more thirsty selfies). It means taking more time than I thought was necessary to cultivate the four elements of true love (loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity). It means establishing a deep and long-term commitment to each other’s well-being before pursuing that kind of relationship.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I am even writing about this topic, given that I have been in a stable and happy committed relationship for over two years. I am in a very loving and wonderful ethically non-monogamous relationship, and am so happy to say that we share the most beautiful manifestation of true love I have ever experienced. I am so honored and filled with joy to have a partner with whom I can perpetually cultivate these four minds of love with. To me, true love doesn’t require monogamy or romance. Our teacher Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) has said over and over again that true love can be found with anyone, if you take the time to cultivate it. In my experience, true love and a deep, long-term commitment can happily arise between good friends, and I am so looking forward to cultivating more true love in my life as I begin anew with a fresh understanding and deep sense of responsibility. I go forward with mindfulness, great care, and joy! Thank you for sharing this moment of renewal with me.