Anne Cushman goes undercover in the Buddhist branch of the online dating world.
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THE IDEA FIRST COMES up as a joke between me and my Tricycle editor: As a newly single Buddhist mom, why don’t I post my profile on a couple of the new online “dharma dating” sites, and write about my experiences?
I find the notion both intriguing and horrifying. For years I’ve mocked the idea of shopping for a mate the way you’d shop for a book on Amazon.com (“Add This Man to My Cart!”). Once, while browsing for a used couch on Craigslist, I popped over to the Men Seeking Women section for a look, and the ads all ran together in my mind: 6-foot divorced sofa, 45, brown hair/blue eyes, overstuffed cushions, slightly cat-clawed, wants to spank you. . . .
But lately, several of my friends have met partners online; several others have had fun just going out for dinners, movies, and hikes with people they’d never have met without the Internet. According to Business Week Online, almost 5 percent of the U.S. population is now listed on Match.com. Arranging dates through Buddhist sites promises something novel: a wide assortment of potential friends, all of them single and interested in connection, and all sharing a primary interest in spiritual practice. And as a mating strategy, it probably beats cruising a Vipassana retreat.
The only problem is, I’ve never really dated.
In my mid-thirties, I married my college sweetheart, with whom I’d been best friends and off-and-on partners since I was seventeen. In my twenties and early thirties, during the long periods when he and I weren’t a couple, I had explored a series of relationships with some wonderfully offbeat men: A Brazilian massage therapist who was paying for his master’s in somatic psychology by programming computers for a 900-line in Las Vegas. A French Zen student who baked a tarte aux pommes for my birthday and offered me bouquets of homegrown chard. A yogi who invited me to a clothing-optional “love and intimacy” workshop at his Santa Cruz home that culminated in a talent show where a seventy-three-year-old woman belly-danced wearing nothing but a denim apron.
None of the connections, however, involved anything that you might call dating. We met while adjusting each other in Downward Dog, or squabbling over unwashed dishes in the kitchen of a collective house. We migrated easily back and forth across the boundary between friendship and romance. I’m still good friends with virtually everyone I’ve paired up with in the past twenty years.
After my marriage went down in flames, romance was initially the last thing on my mind. (Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that I was still wearing nursing bras.) And at this point, I’ve been around long enough to know that a romantic partner is not a guaranteed ticket to a dukkha-free life. Love, it seems to me, is a combination of serendipity and hard work. Wouldn’t I be better off using my time and energy rooting out the cause of suffering—craving—at its source? Instead of dating, shouldn’t I volunteer at a soup kitchen? Shouldn’t I focus on contemplating emptiness and interdependence to the point where I’d get just as much joy from an evening alone sorting socks as from a night making passionate love in front of a fire to Indian sitar music?
Oh, who am I kidding? “Sure,” I tell my editor. “I’ll check it out.”
Week 1 I get paralyzed in huge, bargain-basement stores. Given fifteen aisles of shoes to choose from, I’m likely to give up on the whole project and go home barefoot. So I pass on the New Age megasites like eHarmony and just sign up for the two that sound explicitly Buddhist: dharmaMatch.com and DharmaDate.com.
Despite its name, dharmaMatch turns out to be a fairly general site, aimed at singles of all religious persuasions “who hold their beliefs, values, and spirituality as an important part of their life.” Its homepage features a lovely young couple locked in an embrace, surrounded by giant soap bubbles—as if to remind us of the impermanent nature of romantic love, even as we pursue it.
DharmaDate is more narrowly targeted toward Buddhists: “We want it to be an informal sangha meeting place where you can be yourself. Or be your non-self.” The sign-up process includes a series of in-depth questions about practice and beliefs that are explicitly designed to screen out non-Buddhists (who, presumably, would otherwise be flocking there in droves, drawn by the legendary licentiousness and raw animal magnetism of dharma practitioners). The first thing I must do, on both sites, is choose a screen name. I try for Yogini, but it has already been taken. Dakini? Same deal. I rule out Bikini as unwise, and settle instead on Tahini, which also happens to be the name of my cat.
Although photos are not required, they’re strongly encouraged, as the bait on the hook in the online sea. So I scramble through my files, trying to find a recent picture that doesn’t lop off my head to focus on my five-year-old son. Sign-up questionnaires ask me to evaluate every aspect of myself: physical appearance, lifestyle, personality, dietary preferences. And, of course, spirituality—to a depth I imagine not normally addressed by the average dating site (“What happens after the body dies?” is a question I’ve never seen before in a multiple-choice format).
In the last few weeks, I’ve been contemplating putting my house on the market. The analogies to the dating process are unavoidable: clearly, before holding any open houses I should consider some major renovations—and perhaps a professional stager—to increase my curb appeal.
But within hours of posting my profile, an email arrives in my inbox. “Great news!” it crows. “You’ve received a Smile on dharmaMatch.com from Siddharthe Gotama!” Hmm. . . . Is the not-yet-enlightened prince who will eventually become the Buddha really the sort of guy I want to be flirting with this time around? True, he was handsome, well educated, and rich. But didn’t he run out on his wife and child to wander around with a bunch of celibate homeless people?
I click “Send a Smile back” nonetheless . . . and now I am officially a dharma dater.
Week 2-3 As the introductory Smiles continue to arrive—“ . . . from ManlyMeditator!” “ . . . from DharmaDude!”—the first thing I discover is this: There are apparently a lot of thoughtful, attractive, spiritual singles out there. Sure, there are some scary ones: The guy who rants that he likes trees better than people. The guy who suggests in his opening email that we live together on a ranch in Wyoming, where we will castrate our own goats. But for the most part, the Smiles are linked to intriguing profiles: An Argentinean jazz musician in New York City who studies Tibetan Buddhism and hatha yoga and has a nine-year-old son. A burly poet in Ohio who shares custody of an eleven-year-old daughter. A Zen priest in southern California whose online photo features his shaved head and black robes.
Wait a minute . . . a Zen priest? Shouldn’t he be beyond all this? I picture him chanting in the zendo: Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them—right after I check dharmaMatch for any new hotties. . . .
It just goes to show: as human beings, we’re hardwired for connection. Of course, our practice helps us dissolve the illusion of a separate self and know that we are supported in every breath by the whole universe. But at the same time, it’s also good to feel supported by a real live person who actually cares that we had a bad day, that the kids were brats, that the boss was a tyrant, that the computer kept crashing, that we failed to solve our koan.
Forty percent of the U.S. population is single, according to the New York Times, up from 28 percent in 1970. And an increasing percentage of those singles are forty years and older. Many of the profiles I read, like mine, have ghosts hovering in the margins: ex-lovers, ex-spouses, shared children. Sifting through them, I envision us all bobbing around in the ocean after a great cultural shipwreck. We tighten our life preservers, clutch our bits of driftwood, and wave at one another across the water.
I begin exchanging emails with the people who have contacted me (sending them through the sites’ somewhat cumbersome online mailboxes, which guarantee continued anonymity until you’re ready to share your identity and contact info). The jazz musician sends flirtatious messages at midnight, signing his name with a sprinkling of kiss emoticons. The poet sends poems he has written and photos of his cabin and sailboat on a silver lake. The getting-to-know-you questions pelt me through the ether: “What’s the most fun thing you’ve done this week?” “What spiritual teacher has influenced you the most?” “What do you think true freedom is?” A resident of a Tibetan retreat center in Canada writes, “I smiled at you but I have no idea what a smile means. Does this mean we’re engaged?”
As a writer, I already spend a good portion of my days staring at my computer screen; I quickly discover that I don’t want to conduct my social life there. The dharma-dating emails drown in the flood of messages from my real-world life: article submissions, work appointments, family sagas, baby announcements, friends inviting me to potluck suppers. Untethered to the world of blood and bones, the candidates for my affection drift out of my mind like balloons on a windy day. I forget what I’ve said to the Zen priest and what to the jazz musician. I forget whether the photographer in Massachusetts has grown-up kids, or whether that’s the software designer in Palo Alto. I repeatedly forget my dating-site password. I’m tempted to copy and paste from one of my answers into another, just to save time—but surely that’s tacky? Increasingly, I don’t get around to returning the emails.
This, of course, has its own pitfalls. When I inadvertently fail to return a Smile, I receive my first flame: “Is this the way enlightened people behave? Well, if it is I might just as well go to the local bar and become an alcoholic, smoke cigarettes, and associate with big furry women who grunt when they talk. And what do you think might be the karmic consequences of being responsible for my demise?”
I decide to perform some geographical triage. I will politely decline correspondence with anyone who doesn’t live within easy driving distance of me. Those who live nearby I will steer as quickly as possible toward face-to-face meetings.
Weeks 4-5 I consult Online Dating for Dummies, which recommends that the first meetings be brief, for coffee or tea, and that they be held in a busy public place. So I meet my first date at a bookstore café that’s bustling enough to feel anonymous. I wonder how many of the couples I see at the tables around me are meeting for the first time, exchanging chitchat while surreptitiously checking each other out to see if they can imagine spending the rest of their lives together.
My date, whose screen name refers to a legendary Scottish warrior, is a small, serious man with a British accent and a longtime Vipassana practice. We look at each other awkwardly, clutching our mugs of herbal tea. I break the ice with what seems like an innocuous question: “So what do you do?” He gazes at me as if this is the weirdest question anyone has ever asked him and repeats, incredulously, “Do???”
I decide to do more prescreening next time. After a few intriguing email exchanges, I chat on the phone with a yoga practitioner who teaches world religions at a prep school near San José. We converse easily about our children (he has two preschool-age sons), our spiritual practice (we’ve studied with some of the same teachers), our academic interests.
When I arrive at the bookstore café, he’s not there yet. I browse through the paperbacks, discreetly eyeing each arriving customer. Across the aisle, a stocky, dark-haired man is doing the same thing. We exchange glances, then look away—clearly, we are not the people we’re waiting for. It takes a good ten minutes before we approach each other and discover that we are.
We order tea and begin to talk, trying to get used to each other’s nonvirtual presence. Although I hadn’t been aware of having any clear expectations, I feel slightly let down. This guy is every bit as thoughtful and pleasant as our conversation had led me to believe. But the man I had imagined was taller, with a commanding physical presence due to his twenty years of intensive Iyengar yoga. I find myself glancing toward the door, still waiting for him to show up. I imagine that my date is probably waiting for a different version of me, as well—perhaps one in retouched black-and-white, like my publicity photo.
Stirring my tea, I realize that this is one of the many strange things about online dating. Normally, when you meet someone, you encounter him or her first in the flesh, so whatever story you begin to spin in your mind centers around a character who vaguely resembles who that person actually is. But when you meet someone online, the mind—in a textbook illustration of what Buddhism calls papancha, or “proliferation of thoughts”—fleshes out an entire image based on a tiny photo and a few lines of text, and then begins generating plots in which this imaginary figure plays a leading role. When you actually meet the person, he bears no resemblance to the person you’d imagined—how could he?—so you feel a wave of disappointment. It’s like seeing a movie based on a favorite novel: That’s not Rhett Butler! (Although in that case, at least, Rhett is played by Clark Gable.)
Weeks 6-10 I don’t take the prep school teacher up on his offer to meet again—I’m moving to a new home, which will be a three-hour drive from where he lives. Distracted by the details of packing, I take a break from the dating assignment. In the move my Internet connection goes down for a couple of weeks; I get back online to find a backlog of dharma-date emails in my inbox, along with a pile of tasks that need attending to. Dharma dating feels like just one more assignment on which I’m falling behind.
I begin declining all correspondence, saying truthfully that I’m just too busy right now. But I keep glancing at the profiles with idle curiosity, the way I sometimes stop in at garage sales. I’m fascinated to observe how quickly my mind rules people out—and on how little evidence. “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences,” wrote Seng Tsan, the third Zen Patriarch. The same might be said for dharma dating. Free of the counterbalancing weight of actual human contact, I eliminate suitors for random, insignificant reasons: Too short. Too tall. Too old. Too young. Too little hair. Too much hair. Spelling vipassana with the wrong number of p’s or s’s or n’s. Claiming to be enlightened.
Weeks 11-13 With a nudge from my editor, I decide to plunge back into the dating sea again. I meet up for dinner with a former devotee of the tantric guru Osho who now runs a car-rental business. I have tea with a music producer and Vipassana student from L.A., who regularly visits the Bay Area to record with a local musician. A professor of East Asian philosophy invites me to an “ecstatic trance dance” held at a Middle Eastern belly-dancing restaurant. A psychologist and mountain climber offers me a tour of his co-housing community.
What is the spark—chemistry? karma? neurosis?—that leads us to want to spend time with one person more than with another? Whatever it is, I don’t feel it with any of my dates, although they are all likeable people. The very activity of dating feels fluffy and insubstantial compared with the weight and texture of my daily life, filled as it is with the countless domestic details of child-rearing, work, and friendships. Romance seemed easier to stumble into in the old days, when I didn’t have so many . . . appendages. But of course, these appendages are what make my life worth living.
I tell myself that I should probably persist past a first date. After all, haven’t some of my best connections been with people I didn’t immediately feel attracted to? But my life is already full of friends I don’t have enough time to see. I resist the idea of carving out time for relative strangers. Driving home from my co-housing tour, I reflect that this whole experience can perhaps be viewed as a kind of meditation practice. When you sit down to meditate, you never know what’s going to come up. Some days you’re hammered by relentless trivia; other days you’re caught in storms of anger or grief or fear. What’s important is just to keep coming back to the cushion, to keep opening the door to the possibility of peace and insight.
Perhaps dating is just a way to practice keeping the door of my heart open to intimacy—without attachment to results. In the process, I can notice the habits of contraction that keep me feeling separate from other people: judgments, expectations, fears, busyness, guilt, chronic feelings of insecurity or superiority.
Or is this theory just an attempt to spiritualize an essentially absurd activity, one riddled with consumerism and steeped in the double delusion that love is out there somewhere—and that with persistence and a fast Internet connection we can track it down?
Week 14-15 I go out to dinner with a computer programmer who used to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. Over Thai food, we talk for three hours, although I’d told the babysitter I’d be home in two. He tells me about the Tibetan teachers he’s studied with and about the tantric sex workshops he used to attend.
Over the next two weeks, he floods me with long, chatty emails. He tells me about books he’s read, movies he’s seen. He muses on artificial intelligence, the history of Supreme Court justices, his relationship with his nieces and nephew and sisters. I tell him that, as a writer, I don’t enjoy socializing by email. He responds with a five-paragraph essay about a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR.
I lose patience, and send him a plea: “Ack! No! Stop! Send smoke signals! Beat on a talking drum! Skywrite messages in the blue! Throw tomatoes at my window! But no more emails!”
I’m not cut out for cyber-dating, I decide.
It seems I am an anachronism. I’m just not interested in “getting to know someone” by typing words into a box on a screen. For me, connections unfold slowly, through repeated encounters in natural settings. I like to observe animals in the wild, not in the zoo. Instead of exchanging pleasantries with strangers online, I’d rather go deeper into my life as it already is, and celebrate the intimacy—with friends, family, and community—that is already nourishing me.
I’ve never been someone who spots love instantly. Overcoming my innate reserve usually takes days, weeks, even months spent sweating side by side on yoga mats, or scrambling eggs in the kitchen of a shared house. At this stage of my life, I’m starting to believe, nothing will break through my busyness and melt my defenses but the rhythm of a project or activity shared over time; and that activity must be more meaningful than the shared project of looking for a date.
Postscript I’m seeing someone again.
He’s a wise, loving, and funny friend I met the old-fashioned way, years ago, when he dropped by my magazine office to do some work. We’ve been in and out of each other’s lives ever since. Maybe it took a dip into cyberspace to open my eyes to the depth of our real-life connection.
Like everything else, I know that this relationship is subject to the laws of impermanence—so I don’t want to jinx things by writing any more about it.
But I will tell you this: He doesn’t have email.
Contributing editor Anne Cushman’s last essay for Tricycle was “Clearing Clutter” in the Spring 2005 issue.
Image: New Life, Jangyung, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi Ltd, London.