When it comes to dating apps, I suspect that most users tend to swipe through potential friends and lovers in a mostly mindless trance, swelling with hopefulness that can sink into hopelessness, often at the first instance of ghosting. As we dodge the aggressive come-ons of asuras [wrathful demigods] and cultivate the six perfections of profile pictures, we rarely pause to rest our thumbs and check in with what’s going on for us mentally.
I wanted to find out if there was a better way to use dating apps, so I reached out to Devon and Nico Hase, a Buddhist couple and co-authors of the upcoming book How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Survival Guide for Modern Life (Shambhala; April 21, 2020). They are both meditation teachers who have trained extensively with teachers like Joseph Goldstein, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and Tara Brach. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, Nico and Devon devised some guidelines for falling and staying in love that stem from their ecumenical approach to the dharma, their commitment to each other, and their vow to be good people in a sometimes hell realm-y world.
How can we use dating apps mindfully or skillfully when it seems like these apps naturally lead to patterns of clinging and avoidance that can undermine our wisest intentions?
Nico Hase (NH): Well, with this exact question in mind, we came up with three approaches to dating based on Buddhist teachings: stay cool, know what you’re about, and know what you want. The first one is basically shorthand for using the breath and body to stay anchored to whatever is going on relationally and in your own mind and heart—because it gets crazy in there. It’s a reminder that you can always come back to the breath again, and again, no matter what’s going on.
Devon Hase (DH): The next one, know what you’re about, like a lot of what’s in our book, is an idea from the Buddhist precepts disguised in cool language [laughs]. These apps can really mess with our best intentions, so it’s essential to know who you are and what your values are. Know what you care about. When we put ourselves out there, especially in the app world, it might be really enticing to try to be somebody you’re not. Creating a facade around your true self tends to throw off center both you and the person you’re interested in, because it’s not honest. Knowing the ethical foundation you stand on is important, too.
Dating apps tend to lift appearances and good looks above all else, which probably doesn’t reflect most of our core values. How do we stay true to ourselves in that kind of situation? Should we even use them?
DH: That’s a really legitimate question. The third principle we mentioned before is know what you want. Is it really through an app that we want to try dating? Why? Are there other methods? I’m taking a conservative position here, but I personally wouldn’t use an app like that because it isn’t aligned with the kind of life I want to lead—one that involves a willingness to let go and try to meet people in different ways.
NH: I’m going to take the opposite position, just to keep things interesting. I think we should use what’s available. So if that means Tinder, and we feel like it aligns more or less with our values, then we should use it and make ourselves look as good as we possibly can. You know, put a good picture up—why not? That said, it’s probably wise to put your actual height and present yourself in a way that won’t be shocking to the person when they sit down for coffee with you.
It’s important to stay in tune with your ultimate goal by continually asking yourself what you’re looking for. Perhaps the goal is to build a relationship, and the entry point is a dating app. If you’re violating your values in some way, it’s much less likely that you’re going to have your preferred outcome in the long run.
DH: I think it relates to right intention, which is the second fold on the eightfold path. We have to be willing to have compassion for the suffering that our world brings, especially the dating world. Neither of us have dated for a decade, and we’re kind of happy about that. Dating is dukkha, it’s suffering. You need a lot of compassion—for yourself and others—in order to stay grounded.
Is it ever OK to ghost people?
NH: I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer, whether you should or should not ghost somebody. It all comes down to the second principle of know what you’re about. If you really value clear and open communication, you might decide against ghosting, and instead send a simple message, like, “Hey, it was great seeing you. You have so much to offer the world, but I don’t think it’s a match. I wish you the best.” But there might be another situation where the person seems unsafe to you, or they’re being really difficult or sticky in some way. You might feel that it’s in your best interest to ghost them. Just try to stay away from unconscious reflexive habits. You want to be awake to what’s happening and make decisions based on your values.
DH: It’s also good to be aware of all of our conditioning around communication based on gender. In my experience as a woman, I’ve been conditioned toward the need to respond, like it’s a responsibility that I have. I’ve probably never ghosted anyone in my life. But there’s a power—I’m now learning—in realizing, “Wait, actually I don’t have to respond to this person.” If someone is acting like a jerk, I can decide how and when to engage with them, or whether to have any contact with them at all. But I must have clarity about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, checking in with myself to make sure that it is not out of aversion or spite.
Buddhism doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about dwelling in fantasies. Are we not supposed to indulge in any playful mythology about the other person when we first meet someone we like?
DH: When you’re first meeting someone, there’s a lot of mystery—and a lot of projections and stories. This is all actually good material for the practice. I find it so interesting how separate my projection is from the actual individual. If I’m working with my mind, I can parse out what is my own idealization, hopes, and fears and what is their reality—this person is a whole world that I don’t know yet and that’s probably totally different from what I’m thinking.
NH: I think it goes back to that principle, stay cool. Ask yourself if there’s a way of noticing these thoughts about the other person, and then come back. It’s the same in meditation—you drift away into all kinds of thoughts, fantasies, and memories, and then you come back. Your mind may be tripping ahead of itself, talking about the three kids you’re going to have or the house you’re going to live in, or the horrible shitshow the relationship is going to become. Is there a way to just come back into your physical body, and come back to the person you’re actually seeing with your eyes? Without rejecting the thoughts and getting rid of them, just recognize, Oh, this is just the thinking mind doing its thing, then you can stay cool.
But when we come back to reality, is there still space to, say, let the butterflies flutter?
DH: Yes. As Pema Chödrön says, it’s all about getting comfortable with uncertainty. Projections reflect our wanting to know things about the future and yearning for solid ground to stand on. Yet, as we train and open up to the ultimate uncertainty of reality, we realize that there’s a kind of excitement in not knowing what’s going to happen next. Ideally, our partner stays a mystery our whole lives.
Let’s fast forward. You’re dating someone, but they don’t share your enthusiasm for Buddhist practice.
NH: At the end of the day, it’s definitely easiest if you share the practice and are equally balanced in that commitment. It’s great if you and your partner both like to sit ten minutes a day, or go to dharma talks together, or—like us—enter into retreat for months at a time. But that’s also, I think, pretty unusual. (Oren Jay Sofer’s book Say What You Mean contains some great tips on how to talk across these kinds of differences.) It’s not essential that both partners are equally committed to meditation or a spiritual practice, but it is essential that both partners are equally committed to talking it out.
DH: I might be all about Buddhism, but maybe my partner is all about cooking or Tai Chi or surfing as a spiritual path. It’s important to support them in the same way that I would want to be supported in my practice. Partnership is all about supporting whatever path you’re on.
Sometimes Buddhist practice can be a solitary endeavor, such as during retreat. How does a romantic relationship fit with that aspect of the practice?
NH: For me, solitary retreat is really powerful and extremely joyful. I’ve had some hellish retreats, but at this point in my practice, having nothing to do except dharma practice is the pinnacle of pleasure.
But the big problem with retreat is that there’s nobody around to point out your shortcomings and to show you when you’re lost. The crucible of romantic partnership is kind of unparalleled in this regard. Even if it’s just the expression that is crossing her face, Devon can give me moment-to-moment feedback on where I’m at. I can use that as a vehicle for awakening—it can also be a vehicle for incredible frustration! But if I can stay in the mindset of development and practice, there’s no mirror like a romantic relationship.
DH: I want to add one more thing: we’re talking about partnership because we’re in one, but I think it’s totally OK not to have a partner. The point of practice is learning to navigate the world in a way that aligns with our own heart and mind. Our culture is beautiful in that it offers a wide range of ways to be in our sexuality. Partnership can be an added benefit on the path, but it doesn’t have to be.
Further Reading: Buddhist couples share their love stories in “Love at First Sit” in our Spring 2020 issue, and author Sara Eckel explains how Buddhist teachings helped her embrace the single life.
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