Learning to Love From a Place of Understanding and Compassion

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Dear Still Water Friends,

The Third Mindfulness Training, “True Love,” reads:

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 mutual consent, true love, and a deep, long-term commitment. I resolve to find spiritual support for the integrity of my relationship from family members, friends, and sangha with whom there is support and trust. 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 interrelated, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and to cultivating the four basic elements of true love – loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness – for the greater happiness of myself and others. Recognizing the diversity of human experience, I am committed not to discriminate against any form of gender identity or sexual orientation. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

Navigating human relationships, particularly those that include sex, is not easy. When I look back at my younger, unmarried self, at how casually I treated partners and relationships, I cringe. The Third Mindfulness Training contains many insights that would have helped me then and do help me now. For example, Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) writes in The Mindfulness Survival KitThe Third Mindfulness Training is a reminder that we can love people from a place of understanding and compassion, not just out of need.” This tells me that when I feel physical attraction for another person, I must look deeply at my motives. Am I acting out of a desire to deeply know and understand another person or am I focused on meeting my own needs?

In The Art of Saving the Planet, Thay writes about the error of thinking that a sexual relationship will relieve our loneliness and isolation. I believe it’s true, as Thay says, that we must learn to love and take care of ourselves before we can love others with understanding and compassion. Thay writes:

If you feel lonely and cut off, if you suffer and need healing, you cannot expect the loneliness to be healed and comforted by having sexual relations. It will only create more suffering for both you and the other person. First, you need to learn how to heal yourself, to be comfortable within and cultivate a true home inside. And, with that true home, you’ll have something to offer to the other person. And they need to do the same: to heal themselves, so they can feel better and at ease and share that home with you. Otherwise, all they’ll have to share is loneliness and ill-ease, which cannot help heal you at all.

When we practice the Third Mindfulness Training we commit to cultivating sexual responsibility. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, also entitled “True Love,” states, “We know that to preserve the happiness of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others.” For me, this means that if a person to whom I am attracted is in a committed relationship with another person, I refrain from seeking a sexual relationship with them. The training asks us to be aware of harm that can be done to people other than the two potential sexual partners and to make wise decisions to avoid that harm.

The trainings have been rewritten more than once since I first encountered them. I appreciate the recent revisions to this training, such as the inclusion of “mutual consent” as a necessary condition of any sexual relationship. I also appreciate the new sentence, “Recognizing the diversity of human experience, I am committed not to discriminate against any form of gender identity or sexual orientation.” The inclusion of this sentence was and is controversial for some Plum Village practitioners. That it is now part of the third training affirms the courage and foresightedness of the monastics that continue Thay’s practice.

What the third training doesn’t address is the joy, connection, and intimacy possible in a sexual relationship in which the partners know themselves and refrain from harming anyone. Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, a Dharma teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, writes in her book Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges that we need to become intimate with ourselves before we can be truly intimate with another.

By being intimate with yourself, you realize your continuous interaction with all of reality. Perhaps most of all, in terms of sexual intimacy, your willingness to explore your moment-to-moment experience offers you wisdom and compassion in this most compelling realm of human existence. There is always the possibility of a moment with another that is alive, pure, clear, and true to what you really feel: a place where two energies merge. … Sex is a part of the world where we find joy, power, tenderness, vulnerability, and excitement; the preciousness of an intimate relationship with another; the thickness and denseness of intimacy. Sex is (or can be) the closest and most intimate way we relate to each other.

On Thursday evening, after our sitting meditation, we’ll have the opportunity to share our experiences with the Third Mindfulness Training. Here are some questions we might consider:

  • Are there aspects of the third training have been helpful to you in navigating relationships?
  • How have you practiced cultivating the four elements of true love – lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness?
  • The Third Training has been revised to include a sentence about diversity and non-discrimination towards any form of gender identity or sexual orientation. In what ways does this aspiration help you in your practice?

We hope you can join us. Below are two excerpts relating to the third training. May they nourish our understanding.

With appreciation,

Connie Anderson


From a commentary by Zenkei Blanche Hartman in The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon

I understand the precepts not as rules to follow, but more as, “Be very careful in this area of human life because there’s a lot of suffering there, so pay attention to what you’re doing.” Like a sign on a frozen pond that says, “Danger, thin ice,” rather than, “Shame on you!” Our vow is to help people end suffering, not to add to their suffering. I feel that there is a way to live without objectifying anyone as a sexual object, while still appreciating their beauty. This is living by the precepts.

From The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation by Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith

We often think of sex as though it concerns only sexual acts. But sex is about relationships, and relationships are about the commitment to living with each other in ways that are kind, in which we hear each other, in which we refrain from hurting through anger or violence, and in which we create a safe environment for each other. Building honest relationships is a never-ending spiritual practice in which sexuality can be a source of deep connection.