February 4, 2017

Dating as a Buddhist is a Beautiful Mess.

Dating as a Buddhist is both wildly beautiful and totally messy.

It’s being in the present moment, embracing our partner tenderly, while also being painfully aware of any baggage they haven’t sorted out. In many ways, it’s like John Mayer says: we’re slow dancing in a burning room.

There’s beauty and there’s messiness. It’s inescapable.

Practicing Buddhism is about working with these two sides of the same coin.

It’s leaning into the human experience: the sadness, joy, pain, fear, doubt, and heartbreak. We’re willing to face the pain of the present moment, like when our partner says something that strikes a nerve. Instead of lashing out, we try to sit with all the thoughts and feelings that come up.

While dating and being in relationships, we hang out with all that makes us human. The good and the bad all come out to play.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to live a present and loving life, but it sure helps. Something about sitting on a meditation cushion and becoming deeply familiar with the inner workings of our minds gives us space to do the same for others. We learn to offer ourselves compassion when we see our chaotic humanness. Then, we try to do the same in dating. However begrudgingly, we give our insecurities and doubts a pat on the back and we look ourselves and those we’re dating right in the hearts.

Sounds great, right? Except that I mentioned there was heartbreak amongst the joy. Like many of the colorful fantasies we play out in our minds, we all (Buddhist or non-Buddhist) hope that dating will feel like a fairy tale, but it rarely turns out that perfect. That’s okay.

I’d like to share these three lessons from amazing Buddhist teachers that illustrate why the beauty is actually in the mess.

1. “Sometimes not getting what you want is a stroke of good luck.” ~ Dalai Lama

It’s human nature to yearn, plan, and grasp. We all desire certain outcomes, and when situations don’t turn out the way we thought they would, it feels like a devastating blow.

Our partner says no to coming home for a holiday with us, a girl we’ve been crushing on has been avoiding us, or we had a script in our heads for how a date was going to go, but it totally went south. We don’t get what we want in our romantic lives. The Dalai Lama is gently and humorously suggesting that we welcome this blow to the ego. Not getting what we want can be good news because it opens doors that we may not have otherwise seen on our own.

Romantic feelings are unpredictable, and as a result, we sometimes fall in love with people who aren’t a good fit for us. I recently developed a huge crush on someone I met on a meditation retreat. He was much younger, in an entirely different place in life, and not particularly nice to me. I had hoped we could pursue a relationship despite the red flags. As I was fantasizing about the possible months to come, we spent a couple of lovely nights with each other. On the morning before I left, I found out he didn’t even know my name and he told me it was nothing more than a good time for him.

It struck me like a ton of bricks that the love story I had formulated in my mind wasn’t going to happen. Had it gone my way, though, I likely would have pursued this person and it may have ended in more pain down the road. At the time, I had a feeling we weren’t a match, but my human heart wanted to believe something different. Having him close the door for me meant that I could step back back from the situation to see it more clearly. Then, I could move on to see future open doors.

2. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” ~ Pema Chodron

It’s taken me a long time (and many rejections) to understand on a heartfelt level that I’m a lovable human, no matter what I do. There’s nothing that can change that. It has taken me putting myself out there and being turned down countless times to learn that rejection won’t kill me.

Too many of us miss opportunities because we’re terrified to put ourselves out there. I know because I spent most of my life avoiding rejection. I feared being laughed at, not being able to handle “no,” or that all of my insecurities would be exposed. In the past year, though, I’ve finally experienced rejection in dating and it’s been a huge victory. I’ve put myself out there for people who didn’t feel the same. I told someone I was falling in love with him and he broke up with me a week later when he decided we weren’t a match. It was devastating, but I eventually learned that there was nothing I would have changed and I didn’t regret telling him my truth.

At first, exposing myself over and over again to emotional annihilation did not feel like the right path. No, it felt like the universe was punishing me. I often feel that way about Pema’s advice. She’s a tough cookie. I mean, we put ourselves out there to be shut down? That doesn’t sound fair. From doing so, though, I’ve touched into something deep inside myself. I’ve learned what it feels like to be alone.

Being alone has allowed me to tap into my essence, which can never be broken. Call it the divine, my highest self, or God, but at the end of the day I’ve felt my innate goodness, my indestructible soul. No matter how many times I’m emotionally annihilated by a lover or an experience, an immoveable force remains untouched inside of me and I see that I’m just as worthy as ever.

3. “No mud, no lotus.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

The two-year-old inside of me stomps my feet when I hear this quote. I think: Really? Why does a beautiful flower need muck to bloom? But, when I dig deeper, I see that all the growth I’ve experienced in dating has happened as a result of difficulty and messiness.

Despite being a foot-stomping child much of the time, I believe as a Buddhist that to be a human is to suffer. I also believe that there is a path to transcend suffering. The unfortunate news, though, is that the path to transcendence is right through the mud. That’s what Thich Nhat Hanh is telling us: go ahead and get muddy.

In the muck of it all is where I’ve felt most alive. I’m not recommending heartbreak, but it does have the potential to snap us awake. It’s like the bite of a freezing wind when we first step outside—it seeps into the bones. The grief caused by heartache is the kind that knocks the wind out of us, makes us question everything we thought we knew about ourselves, and shuffles our insides. It forces us to open our eyes to the present moment. By acknowledging how undesirable the mud is, if we’re willing to move through it, we have a chance to become flowers.

I can see where the mud from each of my dating experiences has provided me with the perfect environment to grow. I’m not proud of the person I was in my longest relationship. I regularly cheated, acted in passive-aggressive ways, and tried to isolate my partner from his family and friends. During active alcoholism, I drunkenly cheated on him one last time. I broke my own heart enough that I became willing to change. I faced my alcoholism, ended the relationship, and got sober. The breakup was painful, but it was the essential mud that helped me to turn around my life. Acknowledging that I was in the muck and that I had nowhere to go but through was what I needed in order to bloom into the partner and person I knew I could be.


The tears we cry, mistakes we make, and quirks we have are messy and beautiful all at the same time. Staying on the meditation cushion when our minds get crazy is practice for staying in a relationship when our own humanity is spilling out all over the place.

Sharing our glorious humanness—the tears and the love—with another person is an immense gift. Not getting what we want, facing rejection, and making a muck of things may not feel the greatest, but they provide the essential ingredients for us to fulfill our potential in life and in love.

Dating as a Buddhist isn’t your fairy tale romance, but it sure is worth it.


Author: Ginelle Testa

Image: Michael Coghlan/Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman



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