Tightly vs. Lightly

One of the never ending discussions polyamorous people have is around jealousy. For that matter, people who are monogamous and just talking to someone poly always want to talk about jealousy. Jealousy is apparently a fascinating topic–what it really is, how to deal with it, is it learned or ingrained, etc.  I’d like to offer a different way to look at this question: Tightly versus Lightly

Some people hold on to relationships very tightly. They try to control them and shape them so they feel safe. They’re the ones who set up rules and vetoes, who have problems with jealousy, who constantly wonder when things will go wrong. And things always do.

Other people hold relationships lightly. They don’t make any relationship the focus of their happiness, they naturally avoid jealousy and they are happy when their partner goes off without them, whether it be to another lover (poly) or a hobby (mono).

People who hold relationships lightly don’t constantly wonder when things will go wrong. Because they know things will.

Ha! Gotcha there didn’t I? You thought I was going to make the claim that holding relationships lightly was a cure-all for relationship problems! Well, that would be stupid, because there IS no cure. Annalisa’s #1 relationship rule is:

All relationships end badly
(Note: This is written simplistically so it can be catchy. The true statement is: All relationships end. And unfortunately we live in a society that equates “ending” with “failure” so many people consciously or unconsciously fear a relationship’s end and automatically label it as failure).

It’s true. You either break up (which is usually framed as “the relationship was a failure”), or one of you dies (which maybe isn’t the same kind of “badly” as being dumped, but it certainly isn’t a good thing). I suppose we could consider the case of two people who die at the same instant (maybe a la Thelma and Louise), but that’s pretty rare and anyway, you’re dead, so the relationship is over.

The great thing about really accepting the fact that all relationships end is that you stop thinking you can do something to avoid that fate. And then you stop worrying about the end (ZOMG I don’t want to be alone!) and start focusing on the middle (aka the present). You can stop thinking “If my partner is poly he might find another woman and she might be younger and prettier and that might mean he likes her better and then he might leave me so to protect myself I’d better create 3,846 rules!” and start thinking “Right now, what would I like?”

Whether you’re more comfortable in a monogamous or a polyamorous setup is in my view not the most important question. Every monogamous relationship admits other people into it (family, children, friends). Every poly relationship has limits (number of partners, certain people who are deal breakers). In modern society, where men and women work and play together as equals (mostly) and mingle in all settings, there’s really no sharp distinction. There are tons of “monogamous” couples who have the occasional threesome and tons of “poly” couples who have “we two only” activities. It’s not a bright line at all.

But I honestly do believe that if we could all accept that at some point, our relationships will end (possibly sadly) and that we can’t change that we might be able to let go of some of the fear, jealousy and name calling. We’re all in the same boat after all. No one gets out alive, so we should concentrate on enjoying the ride as honestly and fully as we can.

I am an atheist (and what that means)

I recently returned from a sesshin, a multi-day Buddhist retreat. That may be an odd way to start a post on an atheist blog, but between the sesshin and conversations I’ve had recently with Shaun, Alex and a good friend who has a doctorate in religious studies, I’ve been thinking a lot about what religion is and what exactly it means for me to be an atheist.

There is no doubt that Buddhism is, for many people and governments, a religion. it is certainly treated that way in America, where it has (at least officially) the same protected status as other religions. However, it is equally true that for many practitioners, including myself, Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. Stephen Batchelor is only the most outspoken of those arguing that the Buddha was not a religious leader but a social activist. Western Buddhism has fused psychotherapy and neuroscience to the practices of meditation and the outlook Buddhism espouses.

Buddhism has always been based in what Judson Brewer, in a recent Buddhist Geeks podcast, called “evidence based faith.” Early sutras record the Buddha saying that no one should follow him based on faith alone, but that everyone should test his ideas and if they are not useful, or if someone finds something better, the ideas should be discarded. The Dali Lama has said that if science disproves any of the claims of Buddhist belief, it is Buddhism that must change, not science. So I feel quite comfortable saying I am a Buddhist atheist.

That’s not the point of this post however, because that’s a well understood point and not worth a whole separate post. However, at the sesshin, I took part in jukai, the Zen ceremony of transmitting and accepting the precepts. I did a lot of bowing. I promised to uphold the precepts. There was group chanting. Afterwards, Alex, who was there as a guest, later said he was a bit uncomfortable with the “cult-like” atmosphere at times. It made me think seriously about why I am comfortable with chanting and bowing and rules in the context of Zen Buddhism and not in the context of Catholicism or Islam. Having though seriously, here are my conclusions.

First, there are many aspects of religion that I see as neutral or even positive, especially creating  community and allowing space to contemplate big questions like “what is the meaning of life.” And, interestingly, if you ask someone with an MA in philosophy or a PhD in religious studies what the definition of religion is, they are much more likely to talk about the actions a religion performs than the doctrines or beliefs about gods (here’s where I should totally have links to some of the definitions my friend mentioned, but we were in the car for the conversation and I was driving so I didn’t write any of the names down).

It was during the last of these conversations that I realized I am, very literally, an atheist. That is, I am against god, or the concept of god. I’m not really against “religion” per say, because I think it’s a big, amorphous idea that is hard to define. But I am absolutely against the idea of a God especially as presented by the big three monotheistic religions , for two very specific reasons.

1. This view of God locates morality outside the human realm and that is dangerous.

The all powerful god who sets up rules of conduct which are outside of context and time removes responsibility for individual humans to thoughtfully evaluate complex situations and decide what the best response is. I’ve  had the common experience of atheists, being asked by a religious person why I bothering being “good” if I don’t believe in god. I find this question deeply frightening because what it says about the questioner is that the only reason that person is ethical is fear of not getting into heaven. No compassion for others, or an innate sense of fairness and justice or a belief in the social contract. Just fear of hellfire. That is not someone I want teaching my kids (if I had any) or running my government!

2. God is resolutely irrational

God is deliberately and explicitly about faith–the non-rational trust in something that not only cannot be rationally proven, but must not be. If god can be contained by rationality, if god must obey the laws of the universe, if god can be proven, then god’s power is severely diminished if not broken entirely. The point of god is to be beyond human understanding, so that things that don’t make sense to us (why bad things happen to good people, for example), we can take comfort in the belief that god has a plan and it is good.

For me, god is a dangerous concept, because it locates decision making and consequences outside of the human sphere and pretends there can be absolute right and wrong, good and evil. When this is translated into the realm of public policy, civil rights, education and sexuality, it must necessarily cause suffering, because the human world is not absolute.

So I’m fine bowing and chanting at the retreat. I’m fine with religion. What I’m not at all fine with is god. I am an atheist.