Radegast Beer Hall, Brooklyn, on a Friday night in February: twenty and thirty-something’s three bodies deep at the bar and long wooden tables jammed with people, roar of conversation, enormous steins of beer hefted and emptied, a big smoking grill in the corner covered with bratwurst and kielbasa. Not The Garden of Earthly Delights but a chaos of people having a good time, unreservedly. I was there with a couple of friends who were on a mission to hook me up with someone – anyone – following a protracted and bruising split with my girlfriend of 10 months. Finding someone new would be healing, they said, and they no doubt hoped it would also shut me up about the breakup.
They located and recruited a gaggle of attractive women to whom they were singing my praises. The group nominated their tallest member, who seemed a little shy (good for me), and she was pushed forward like we were at an 8th grade dance. She was a classic beauty and carried herself with poise. I remember thinking she looked a little like a young Amelia Earhart (also good for me). “She has a boyfriend but he’s in France,” one of the girls shouted in my ear. And even though I wasn’t looking for anything but a few drinks with my friends and an early bedtime, I chatted her up. I found that familiar mercenary mindset, dusted it off, and went to work.
Flirting is a funny thing. It’s like daredevil motorcycle riding (I imagine). You get revved up, careen down the track, and absolutely cannot lose your nerve or the whole stunt falls apart. Flirting brings you to the fine edge of sexual attraction, the thrill of first connection, an interplay of advance and retreat as you test the other person’s boundaries. Except that night I wasn’t on a fine edge, or in a dance, or riding a motorcycle. I was oddly disembodied. I felt myself smiling and laughing, I watched myself buy drinks and heard myself ask leading questions. I felt her touch my arm, fire off a look, flirt back. I was even going through my habitual checklist: She’s into fashion (negative); she lives in the East Village (positive, geographically convenient); she’s a student at FIT (neutral); she enjoys reading Tom Clancy (unexpected, intriguing). I was suggesting, pushing, projecting, sending and receiving energy, but I felt lifeless inside.
The reason was simple: I was in love with someone else.
Sexuality is ubiquitous in the city. It’s like pesticide runoff in tap water or particulate air pollution: it cannot be escaped, and it fucks with your hormones. It can be difficult to be well intentioned and navigate the dating ecosystem in New York. When I first moved here in 2004, it seemed like everyone except me had come to the city for a particular creative or professional pursuit, to break in to an industry or intern for a certain company. Everyone had an agenda and it seemed to carry over in to matters sexual and relational. I’m from Indiana, where if you liked someone you simply kind of hung around until attraction, time, and communication got you laid. Not so in New York. No time to just hang around. Too glacial. Worst of all, I didn’t have an Agenda. I felt a little like Valentine Martin Smith, a stranger in a strange land. You just want to… ‘get to know me?’ the girls seemed to say. Seriously?
It was finding a Buddhist community and some other transplant friends from small towns that changed all that. I realized it was possible for me to be genuinely myself and be attractive. It’s not a coincidence that around the time I started meditating – and wrestling with ideas about genuine self-acceptance – my love life began to pick up. In fact, I met two girlfriends in a row, both named Stacy, while on successive retreats in Vermont. Meditation has been good to me.
But that night at the beer hall, newly single, back in the flesh market for the first time in years and suffering from a kind of spiritual distress, I wondered: is it possible to be mindful in such a chaotic sexual environment? Is it possible to be genuine when everyone else can seem so artificial? And if you take this Buddhism thing seriously, is it possible to practice right conduct and still play the game?
I used to contribute to the Interdependence Project’s excellent blog One City and several years ago I wrote a post, now blessedly scrubbed from the Internet, in which I argued that it was possible to check out girls mindfully. In it I referred to the innumerable and leggy models strutting around SoHo as “swizzle sticks of sex,” and spring as the time when “the hot girls come out of their coffins.” It was some real quality work. Nasty feedback was left in the comments section, and justifiably: I was ignorant to the massive and daily onslaught of sexual harassment women endure in the city. But I stand by the point in a technical sense: it’s possible to appreciate someone’s sexuality, even openly, and not be a creeper.
Intention matters. There’s an uplifted way to gaze, in which you are aware of the gaze and acknowledge it internally, that sends out the signal, “wow, you’re beautiful. What a lovely thing!” There’s no undercurrent of attachment; its just appreciation for what arises. I would bet the Buddha had some hot students back in the day, and he didn’t turn away from anything.
Dating and sex can be more problematic if you’ve committed to the Buddhist path in a formal way, or stepped away from the world to deepen your practice for a time in a monastic setting. I took Refuge at the Interdependence Project in October of 2008. I had been practicing for a couple of years but fell in to the vow almost accidentally, a decision I now consider to be an instance of tendrel or “auspicious coincidence.” Acharya Eric Spiegel, a Shambhala teacher with a gentle, strong presence, administered the vow. On the morning of the ceremony he walked us through what it meant to take Refuge – a formal declaration of one’s intention to follow the Buddhist path – and talked about the Five Precepts.
1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life
2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given
3. I undertake the training rule to abstain from sensual misconduct
4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech
5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from liquors, wines, and other intoxicants, which are the basis for heedlessness
The first two are relatively straightforward: don’t kill people and don’t steal shit. When we got to the third, Acharya Spiegel said, “In a monastic setting, of course, this means no sex.” He paused. Sunlight slanted through the windows of the yoga studio where we were gathered and cars honked below on the Bowery. There was a collective squirm amongst all of us taking the vow, as if saying to one another, silently, ahh, wait, what did I just sign up for? He let the thought hang for a moment and said, “But I know that’s not going to work in New York City.”
That morning Acharya Spiegel gave special attention to the injunctions against sex and alcohol, saying the Precepts are important guideposts for conduct but that they had to make sense in our lives. Most of us who study Buddhism today aren’t monks, and it doesn’t make sense to live a monastic kind of Buddhism. Jammed in to the L train during my morning commute, I sometimes daydream about becoming a wandering mendicant, threading my way up misty peaks and contemplating the Dharma, but right now I am a practitioner in an American city. I have a job, obligations to friends and family, a social life. I remember the Acharya’s definition of the fifth precept well, in regards to alcohol: “Drink, but take responsibility for your actions when you’re drinking. Don’t use alcohol as an excuse for behavior that is harmful to yourself or others.”
And the third: abstain from sexual misconduct. It can mean no sex outside of a committed relationship, but the Acharya recognized that might not make sense for all of us. There are a lot of people in the city, and a lot of young people, and young people hook up. Sex happens. For some fortunate souls, it happens a lot. Rather than try to abstain from sex entirely, as in a monastery, or limit oneself to a monogamous relationship, which some folks just don’t do, he asked us to approach the Precept from an intentional perspective. Refrain from using sex to mislead or manipulate, to distract from loneliness or suffering, or fill an addiction or craving. When we took the precept, it became, “I vow not to abuse my sexual charisma.”
Return to Radegast beer hall, and to Amelia Earhart at the bar: Was I practicing right conduct, or Shila? Looking back on it now, no. I was, in fact, breaking three precepts that night. I was drinking hard to keep up the charade, saying a bunch of untruthful stuff (“I think you’re really great,” “Fashion is awesome,” “I’ll call you”), and engaging in the kind of sexual misconduct that is intentional rather than literal. I had press-ganged my charisma in to the service of something other than than joy and attraction. I missed my girlfriend terribly and though I had tried to address the loss honestly, there was still grieving to do. My flirting/attraction energy output wasn’t genuine. It arose instead out of a place suffering, and an old habit to use a new connection to paper over a hidden spring of loneliness. It was a contortion that misled Amelia, but just as importantly, did violence to my own broken heart.
My ex-girlfriend and I are back together now. We’re in love. We are doing the difficult work of making a relationship and I’m grateful to be spared the dating scene in New York, at least for now and maybe forever. If I return to it, I hope I can see it not as a minefield but as just another part of practice. The true pleasure of attraction is in the breakdown of our customary public restraint (and the promise of a private payoff). In intimacy and sex – always ephemeral – we transcend the little walls we construct around our hearts and bodies that can make life brutish and solitary, and Buddhism shouldn’t mean clamping down on this in a moralistic way. It means coming to each encounter as an opportunity, moment by moment, to be more honest, embodied, and fearless.