An Intimate Life

The Dharma of Sex, Love and Relationships

Geoff Dawson

What does it mean to live a life committed to the Dharma? It is simply to live life openly and intimately, fully awake in the present moment – and to practice with what blocks us from doing so.

To live openly and intimately in the present moment is to love life unconditionally as it is; without trying to possess it; without demanding that it be other than what it is. It is to live in familiar friendliness with life; in all of its wonder, dilemmas, sorrows and ironies; it is to allow ourselves to softly melt into it, and it to melt into us – not to keep it at an observational arms length as some kind of threat to our individuality. To truly practice with what blocks us from living life fully in this way we first have to acknowledge our stubborn pride.

Whether we choose a celibate life or a sexually active life, the practice is the same – to work with this stubborn pride of the ego that butts up against the vagaries of life and desperately tries to keep separate from it to maintain its own false identity.

The Buddha chose a path of celibacy and encouraged his followers to do the same to aspire to this intimate awakening we call enlightenment. The celibate monastic path remains a strong tradition in Asian countries however in Western countries like our own, most Dharma practitioners lead sexually active lives.

It is not the purpose of this essay to ask why this is so; to justify it; or to evaluate it against monastic life. It is simply to acknowledge that a life of sexual intimacy can be a fulfilling and challenging form of dharma practice.

The question of this essay is this: If you choose a sexually intimate life, how do you transform it into dharma practice, rather than as a way of maintaining your old rigid self?


Sex is a raw body energy that has a life of its own outside of the dictates of the rational thinking mind. As some graffiti in inner city Sydney once proclaimed.
Sex is better than logic………but I can’t prove it.

Despite the way sex is abused and sensationalised, it is for the most part a harmless pleasure between consenting adults. At its best it is both playful and intense and breaks through the tedium of the discursive and ruminating mind into the aliveness of the present moment.

However sex does not necessarily have anything to do with love at all, even though the two are often coupled together. It is possible to have sex with love or without love.
Neither does it necessarily have much to do with reproduction, its biological purpose, especially in a modern world of effective contraception.

We basically have sex for sex sake, to enjoy it. However it becomes more enjoyable and a complete whole being experience when it is intimate and loving. Many people in their more mature years who have worked on themselves and their relationship, report having better sex than when they were younger, because they have learned how to love unconditionally. Good fulfilling sex has much to do with a capacity for openness and intimacy and less to do with the various techniques of doing it.

The reason why monogamy is important in relationships is not just for ethical reasons, but also because it is the best form of relationship for cultivating the capacity to be open and intimate with another person.

If we just go from sexual relationship to sexual relationship, it can be interesting and fun for a while, but most people I have interviewed in my work as a couple therapist who have had many sexual partners, have found it tedious and unfulfilling, yet addictive, after a while. Without sexual commitment to a partner, generosity and patience cannot grow, which are the characteristics of true intimacy.

Love and Intimacy

Love is both unconditional and conditional. Unconditional love is spontaneous and arises out of non-doing. It does not judge, it does not hold grudges, it gives and receives freely without counting the cost. It intuitively says yes. We experience unconditional love vividly at the birth of a child or the death of a friend.

But none of us start from a position of complete unconditional love towards a partner or towards life. That would be like saying that we were fully enlightened and don’t need to practice. We marry (and we practice the dharma) to unblock the heart so we can love unconditionally, not because we are an expert on it right from the very beginning. Those who approach relationship practice with a beginners mind will find it more rewarding – and will be on a level playing field with their partner instead of self righteously claiming the high moral ground.

Though we aspire to freely give and receive unconditional love and are at our most joyful in the moments when this occurs, the reality is it becomes blocked – especially in intimate relationships, as we come up against our inner fears. Fears of intimacy are of four basic types – fear of being rejected, fear of rejecting the other; fear of being engulfed and fear of engulfing the other.

These fears lead us to place conditions on our love and openness. “I can only be open with you if you meet my needs, or promise that you will never leave me or let me down, or love me as much as I love you.”

As John Welwood says in his essay On Love: Conditional and Unconditional.

This pull between loving unconditionally and loving with conditions heightens the tension between two different sides of our nature – the personal wants and needs of our conditioned self and the unconditional openness of the heart. Yet this very tension between conditional and unconditional love, if clearly seen and worked with, can actually help us learn to love more fully. The friction between these two sides of our nature can ignite a refining fire that awakens the heart to the real challenge, the outrageous risk, and the tremendous gift of human love.

In the broader sense, dharma practice is about being intimate with life as a whole, not just one person – it is to be intimate with the falling rain, the hum of traffic, the face of a stranger, or the familiar smell of home. To be sexually intimate with another person is to be familiar with them, physically and emotionally as a whole person. It is to be fully present to a partner and they being fully present to you. It is to know another and to be known in a very complete way. Like meditation it deepens over time.

Intimacy is something everyone wants. It is something people feel entitled to in a relationship these days, whereas in generations gone by it was enough for a relationship to provide security, companionship and family life.

People now pursue intimacy like meditators can grasp at and expect instant enlightenment. The second noble truth, the cause of suffering, comes into play here. This leads to a dynamic emerging in a relationship called a pursuer/distancer pattern. As one partner pursues the other for intimacy with a grasping mind, the other feels controlled and distances with fear of entrapment and aversion. As the distancer distances with fear of entrapment and aversion, it triggers off more fear and rejection in their partner who grasps more for intimacy, and round and round it goes in a vicious circle.

I call it Samsara with Two. This is the very common dance around intimacy that you find in most couples these days that come for couple therapy, including dharma practitioners. The problem exists in both individuals as their own personal dynamics of grasping and aversion polarise into a relationship pattern.

The way out of this vicious circle is through the practice of what one couple therapist – David Schnarch, calls Self Validating Intimacy, instead of relying primarily on Other Validated Intimacy.

Self-validated intimacy in Buddhist terms is maitri, an unconditional warmth and friendliness towards one owns experience. It is the ability to stand on one’s own feet and not react with fear or anger when we don’t get what we want by making friends with these negative emotions and calming them. It goes without saying that a mindfulness meditation practice is an excellent method to work with these difficult emotions that arise in intimate relationships – if only we would practice it off the meditation cushion!

A further extension of this is to communicate our fears around intimacy to our partner. This cuts through the blame cycle by taking ownership of one’s own difficulties and is an intimate act in itself.

Other validated intimacy is relying on our feelings of wellbeing, security and love to be provided for by our partner. There is nothing wrong with it when it is freely given, in fact it is wonderful, but the whole problem of dysfunctional intimacy arises when it is demanded and we rely on it primarily for our well being.

Like dharma practice in general, if we practice with being open and intimate and what blocks it, rather than demand and expect that we must have it, sustained intimacy is more likely to enter our life.

Relationships and Conflict

When two people engage in sexual intimacy in an ongoing way we call this a relationship. This may be formalised into the lifelong commitment we call marriage.
If people live in an ongoing relationship conflicts arise. Conflicts arise because no two people living together are going to have the same needs or preferences arise at exactly the same time together. There will be differences – bless them.

When we apply the Second Noble Truth to this issue it plays itself out in grasping at conflict and avoiding conflict. When we grasp at conflict and its resolution we are usually always looking for it, dramatizing it, exaggerating it. When we are avoiding it, we ignore that any problem exists, minimize it and pretend it will all go away.

The fact that conflict arises in relationships is not the problem. How we work with conflict is the practice issue. Let us return to the theme of dharma practice outlined at the beginning of this essay – that dharma practice is about living an intimate awakened life in the present moment and noticing what blocks this from happening.

The American psychologist John Gottman has done extensive research with over two thousand couples to understand what leads to marriages succeeding and failing, and he can now predict their success or failure with about 95% accuracy.

He identifies four mind sets which destroy relationships and refers to them as
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.

Criticising is attacking the person rather than the issue. Contempt is criticising the person with disgust. Defensiveness is making excuses and not listening to the issue at hand. Stonewalling is ignoring with icy silence and refusing to engage in any conflict resolution at all.

To raise an issue in a relationship that is conflictual is not destructive in itself. Partners may raise issues about such matters as negotiating housework, finances, raising children, negotiating time together and time apart, and sexual intimacy.
The problem arises when we don’t stick to the issue at hand but drift into these four destructive mindsets.

When we don’t stick to the present moment issue we either attack in the form of criticism, or its more extreme form of contempt, or we withdraw in defensiveness or its more extreme form of stonewalling. These dysfunctional conflict resolution patterns go round and round in vicious circles, like dysfunctional intimacy patterns.

How do we shift out of these destructive conflictual patterns, the delusion and attachment that blocks fulfilment and intimacy in our relationships?

First of all, the four horsemen of the apocalypse help us to label what our reaction is when we are in the present moment of a conflict and help us to understand what our life long dominant reactive patterns tend to be through many relationships in our life. Once we have more clearly defined our habitual pattern then our practice is to pause and respond to the issue at hand rather than habitually react. Our unwillingness to do this is indicative of how stubborn our ego is.

However the wonderful thing about relationships as dharma practice is that they provide us with an opportunity to practice with the stuck places inside ourselves. Without the relationship we probably wouldn’t even know how stuck and deluded we are!

However, one caution. One way we could very effectively misuse labelling as a practice and highjack both our Dharma practice and a relationship, is to keep on labelling our partner’s behaviour instead of our own. Remember our first priority, as our Ordinary Mind Zen School Practice Principles suggest, is to recognise that we are caught in our own self-centred dream. The fact that our partner may be as well requires us remembering the third line of the Practice Principles. Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher. There is a golden rule in working with relationships as dharma practice. Your partners practice (or lack of it) is none of your business; your business is your own practice.

Another way of practicing with these issues in a relationship is to clearly label the thoughts that we may have towards our partner even when we are not with them or not necessarily in open conflict. It is the building up of negative thought patterns into a solid reality that becomes the insidious trigger to future conflicts and blocks intimacy in an ongoing way. The first tenant of the Eight-Fold Noble Path is Appropriate View. (Often known as Right View, which is exactly what it is not.) As D.T. Suzuki once said, Right View is to have no fixed view.

Our partner doesn’t have a fixed permanent self. Like us, they are changing moment to moment. As soon as we have turned them into a fixed object we are at odds with the impermanent and empty nature of all existence and we have fallen into delusion. If we don’t ruminate on our partner’s faults and solidify our thinking then we will be open to what is really happening in the present moment when we are with them, including the difficulty and conflict.

In conclusion, we have much to learn about relationships as dharma practice. It is as though we are in a transition stage at this point in time. We have, as a cultural generation, moved from celibacy to sexual intimacy as a dharma lifestyle but our relationships often remain outside the circle we call dharma practice. Our new challenge is to include them.

Recommended reading:
John Welwood, Challenge of the Heart (Love, sex and Intimacy in Changing Times)
David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage
John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail

Buddhism and Psychotherapy