Drinking The Kool-Aid
Perhaps you know the story (penned originally by Kahlil Gibran) of The Wise King, which here I’ll paraphrase …
A king respected for his strength and wisdom rules over a city, in whose heart rests a well of pure and crystalline water.
One night a witch poisons the well-water. Upon drinking the poisoned water, all the inhabitants of the kingdom become insane. The king alone has avoided drinking the poisoned water, and so he alone remains sane.
But as an expression of their madness, the people of the kingdom begin to question the sanity of the king. They become convinced that he is insane.
So in the end the king chooses to drink the poisoned water also—so that once again he will be considered reasonable and sane, in the eyes and minds of his insane citizens.
This story has been on my mind, as of late, largely in relation to some of our cultural attitudes, habits and beliefs about love, intimacy, and sexuality—which seem a tad (or more-than-a-tad) insane. But perhaps it is I who am being unreasonable?
In this line of thinking—and within its spiraling contemplations—the wise king has come to be represented by the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.
This may or may not still be true, but twenty-five years or so ago—when I spent several weeks at Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in south-central France—it was, and it has stayed with me, as an example of wisdom both practical and profound:
Thầy (which means “teacher” and is how Thich Nhat’s Hanh’s students often address him) encouraged the monks and nuns living at his monastery to pair up. The purpose of forming these same-sex “couples” was to help take care of each other’s bodies, and provide the comfort of friendly physical affection.
In doing this, Thầy was acknowledging some basic human needs: (1) the need to be cared for when the body is injured or ill; (2) the need for kindness and affection; (3) the need for physical contact. And given that the monks and nuns had taken vows of celibacy, these needs were not going to be met in the context of a sexual relationship.
The solution was to form purely Platonic partnerships—monks with monks, and nuns with nuns. The function of the couple-relationship was to address these basic needs. So when your monk- or nun-partner was sick, you made sure that they were tended to.
And when both were healthy and out and about, it wasn’t at all uncommon to see a monk holding hands with another monk, or a nun holding hands with another nun: enjoying this simply physical affection and camaraderie.
Setting aside the heterosexual assumptions at play here, I would say that this is an instance of pure and eminently practical genius! It’s a brilliant way of honoring basic physical and psychological needs—for loving care, intimacy, and affection—in a way that’s completely separated from sexual expression. The model is one of best-friends or life-partners, grounded in shared spiritual aspirations. How beautiful!
On The Other Hand …
At the risk of flirting with cynicism, I must ask …
Have you noticed how certain patterns seem to repeat themselves—again and again and again—when it comes to our human attempts to fulfill our needs and desires for intimacy, sexual contact, and love? On a given day, or in a given moment, how much clarity is there—and how much confusion?
What’s the divorce rate? What percentage of violent crimes are committed by someone known to the victim (i.e. a colleague, friend, or family member)?
When you consider the movies, television shows, or theatrical plays you’ve watched over the past couple of years—be they comedies, dramas, action-adventure flicks, romance films, thrillers and horror movies, science fiction, detective shows, Shakespearean tragedies—how many do not include some variation on the following three-part theme:
- Two people appear to be madly in love, sharing tender moments and extravagant sexual adventures.
- Sometime soon or later, some combination of boredom, insecurity, suspicion, jealousy and betrayal happen.
- Which then gives rise to drama-infused hatred, physical and/or psychological combat, separation and divorce, and perhaps even (in the appropriate film genres) murder.
Life is kind. It repeats the lesson-plan as many times as we need, in order to find a workable solution. Honest question: how long will this particular lesson-plan be repeating itself?
Do we need to live in monasteries, in order to find some semblance of sanity? Or is there another social-engineering solution to this dilemma: this perpetual-motion tragicomedy?
Roots Of The Insanity
In the fable with which we began this essay, the source of the insanity is poison poured into the water-well by a witch.
What’s the source of our intimacy/sexuality/love insanity? What’s the source of the confusion that births these millions and trillions of movies—all with more-or-less the same dysfunctional and ultimately unfulfilling narrative? Why do we continue to find these movies (or is it just one movie) interesting?
Seems the following threads often contribute to the confusion:
1. The biological imperative to reproduce the species (with extinction via underpopulation being the imminent threat that it is 🙂 ).
Hormonally-activated temporary insanity is likely as “real” as any phenomena is. I once listened to a respected teacher suggest—in all seriousness—to a younger student that the confusion created by “raging hormones” is something that he would simply need to ride out. In five or ten years, the teacher consoled, the clouds would likely begin to part, and clear-eyed sanity once again emerge.
2. Watching a few too many movies—which again and again convey the message that our ultimate happiness lies outside of ourselves.
This then tends to generate heavy and wholly unreasonable expectations: namely, that our spouse or lover possesses the “magic key” to our lasting happiness. If we can seduce or conquer and then keep them securely within the boundaries of our kingdom, paradise will be guaranteed.
The combination of these two—hormonal overwhelm and dualistic ignorance—tends (as you may have noticed) to be highly combustible. It creates mess after mess, drama after drama. Are we ready to move on? Can we imagine being interested in different kinds of movies? Or are are we destined to play out these same patterns, in perpetuity?
Nothing But A Second-Hand Emotion
Is love really—as Tina Turner so robustly intones—nothing but a second-hand emotion?
Perhaps much of what gets called “love” is exactly that: a hand-me-down that bears little resemblance to its original source—like water which, while originally pure, has come to be poisoned, in this way or that.
The good news is that—as the masters tell us—there is an infinite well of love, in the heart of reality, that remains eternally pure, sweeter than sweet, perpetually fulfilling, tremoring with unspeakable bliss. And it is This that we always and already are, most essentially.
But that’s quite the leap—from the confusion of dualistic ignorance entangled with physiological impulses all the way to primordial purity—so it would be fair to ask …
Is There A Bridge?
Perhaps it’s the subtle body—activated via yoga or qigong practice—that can set the stage for a more direct recognition of the love that is our True Nature?
Perhaps the “taste” of the intrinsically satisfying flowing sensations associated with such practices can serve as a bridge, a turning-point, a portal into our deepest sanity?
But this is a topic for another essay …
In the meantime, the joyful creativity expressed here feels like a step in the right direction, an emblem of another way of being intimate, relishing sexual/creative energy, and generously sharing the happiness: