OK! Buddha: reflections on Internet dating, the dharma and one Shambhala warrior’s failed attempt to find love online.

This is a confessional piece about a recent…[ummm manic]…online dating episode I had a few weeks ago. Retrospectively, I know why meditation is important to me. I meditate so that I can reflect on my experiences, both the delightful and the painful. And in that stillness, I sometimes find the courage to ask myself some uncomfortable questions. As I re-call my experience I will make these reflections clear through topics affectionately called “vignettes de crazy”. And at several points I will refer to Sakyong Mipham’s book Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies for Modern Life, because in the midst of my craziness his book was sort-of a lifeline for me. This confession is entitled: OK! Buddha: reflections on Internet dating, the dharma and one Shambhala warrior’s failed attempt to find love online. 

Ok. Say this three times fast!: Vulnerability and courage are one and the same. 

[chants to himself under his breath: vulnerability and courage are one and the same, vulnerability and courage are one and the same, vulnerability and courage are on and the same]

Ok. [takes deep breath] I’m ready. 

I recently lost my mind. Like really lost my mind. The culprit? Online dating.

I recently lost my mind. Like really lost my mind. The culprit? Online dating. It happens right? Am I the only one who has had an acutely maddening online dating experience? Am I the only one who has experienced the wonderful, the terrifying and the potentially dangerous pull of romantic relationships and the pursuit of love? Now take that pull, that force, give it digitized-crack and red-bull and make it accessible at an instant. This is what I experienced after one weekend of online dating. [or should I say, a failed attempt at online dating because you need to have actually gone on a date for it be considered dating…right?]

But because I am a really good, only slightly novice Buddhist practitioner, I realized that the whole thing of it, the whole process of creating an online dating persona—the choosing of the profile picture, the filling in the description portion, and the people that I found attractive enough and interesting enough to actually meet for a date–was an opportunity for self-reflection. Because of this experience I am now grappling with the following questions: what drives me to look for romantic love? Why do I choose the romantic partners that I choose? How do I go about finding love? And what do the answers to these questions reveal about myself on this path towards spiritual awakening? (I also got to experience that tumultuous rush of feelings and insights that only come from discovering something you reeeaaally don’t like about yourself. Wasn’t it vulnerability researcher Brene Brown who charmingly referred to her own tumultuous rush as a mental breakdown in her viral 2010 TedTalk…or was it a spiritual awakening…I can’t remember) 

And because, like I said, I am a really good Buddhist practitioner, I sunk into the abyss of these questions while I created my profile. I sunk so deeply that I promptly lost my mind, found it again and deleted my profile. [And look, I know online dating works for some people. You may be one of those lucky couples I saw on that charming eHarmony commercial, flirtatiously chasing one another on a beach on some island somewhere. I am happy for you. Really I am. But for me, online dating made me a wee bit psycho.] 
So here is what came up for me along the way. 

Vignette de crazy #1: What’s in a profile? What’s in a profile picture?  

It started with that damn profile picture. I spent…ahem…a few hours in total… laboriously, PAINFULLY scrolling through one thousand Facebook pictures in order to find that PERFECT picture. That picture that would encompass ME. The best ME. No pictures that made me look too goofy, or too serious, too fat or too skinny. Only the best. I wanted to get this point across: I AM a young, sensitive, attractive gay male who is actively engaged in several spiritually based, contemplative communities. I AM NOT the other stuff. The stuff about insecurities and vanity or any of the other things I am red-handedly guilty of feeling on any given Tuesday at 2 p.m. The reason why this process was so painful was because I was looking through the eyes of the big “other”. The other men who would be viewing my profile. The other men who would be judging me, maybe harshly so, worthy or unworthy of their time and attention strictly based on the pictures and words strategically strung together on my profile (insert something here about a pot and kettle). The process of choosing the “perfect” profile picture somehow became its own meditation. A sickening meditation about what it meant to be an attractive gay man in today’s…I’ll say it…superficial society. 

Questions about who I am, who I wish to be and the image, albeit incomplete image, I wish to offer the world continue to remain unanswered. [I remember a dear friend asked me to close my eyes and imagine the “ideal” Brandon. The scene of a calm man wearing Birkenstocks and orange yoga pants, giving nature tours on meditation retreats immediately came to mind. I opened my eyes and excitedly shared this image with her. He seemed so lovely! My friend laughed…like at me. “Brandon, that man you just explained, sounds nothing like you! Where did he come from?” To this day, I don’t know. Perhaps from an article in “Meditation Digest”. Or, even worse, from my own imagination.] 

So on a Saturday in December, after skipping my meditation practice to create an OK! Cupid account, I was now honing in on that perfect profile picture. Next came the description of myself. The website asked me to present myself to other users by answering questions like “what am I doing with my life?”, “what am I really good at?”, “what do I spend a lot of time thinking about?” and “you should message me if”.  

So I did what any good Buddha would do. I panicked!

So I did what any good Buddha would do. I panicked! What should I include? What should I leave out? First, I thought, I’ll add a blurb about all of my accomplishments. Those accomplishments that are framed and hanging up on my bedroom wall. And what about my hobbies? All of the exciting things, none of the weird things. Or the icky things. And so, after carefully curating a dating profile replete with words like “authenticity” and “purpose” and “organic kale”, I had successfully shared with the world the perfectly dateable me….right? 

Vignette de crazy #2: Sorting for love

How do we come to want what we want from our romantic partners? Another wise friend once told me (or maybe it was Oprah) that we usually desire from others that which we feel we do not have in ourselves. So what did I desire from the world of online dating? What did I feel that I needed? What did I not already have inside of me that online dating could give me? Perhaps love? But If I was going to find love on OK! Cupid it was going to have to be from someone who was a certain age, who looked a certain way and who had certain interests and life goals. Armed with standards, I was ready to sort through these eligible bachelors and find the one. The right one. Luckily, (but most tragically) OK! Cupid has “like” and “dislike” buttons. With an approving “like” men were saved to my profile as matches and with a disapproving “dislike” they disappeared, never to be seen again. 

In all honesty I think the “like” button is possibly the worst invention in the history of mankind.

In all honesty I think the “like” button is possibly the worst invention in the history of mankind. How many times have I shared something on Facebook only to be disappointed when the like count wasn’t as replete as I would have hoped? Because of our dear friend the “like” button, the stakes are now too high whenever we share a picture of ourselves during that fabulous vacation we took last summer, or when we share something that we find deeply interesting, or important, or poetic. Now triple the stakes when were talking romance! The like button…uh…to put it spiritually… became a means for me to aggressively sort out the men that I wanted to love me and those that I did not. (AND ALL IN THE COMFORT OF MY OWN HOME.) Could you imagine if this behavior was permissible in real life? Ok, ready? After reading the following sentence, close your eyes. Like really, I want you to close you eyes! Imagine a world where, akin to maniacally liking and disliking online dating profiles, we were able to literally shove unappealing romantic partners out of the way as they greeted us on the street. Did you imagine that? Did that image not make you laugh? Isn’t it absurd? But why did I find it appropriate to sort through these men in a manner I dare not do in real life? And don’t even get me started on my own desire for “likes”. I was a like-feen! For three whole days I was an online-dating cyber zombie, endlessly attacking the re-fresh button on my computer, waiting for another message from an interesting man to come my way or for another “like” to appear on my profile. With every like received I was elated. When a man viewed my profile and didn’t “like” I was devastated. These little micro-traumas felt a lot like suffering. 

And beyond romantic love, I wonder what else I consciously and subconsciously sort through in an attempt to get what I like and to avoid those things I dislike. Even more importantly, how does this sorting lead to my own suffering? In Ruling Your World the Sakyong discusses the three main kleshas, or three main poisons. These poisons are those things we crave or are passionate about, those things we act aggressively towards or are repulsed by and those things we are hold in neutrality or are ignorant of. When left unattended, these poisons run rampant in the mind and create mental fixations around what in life we deem desirable and not desirable. We miss people, we miss moments, we miss opportunities. We don’t see all that is right in front of us because of the “like” and “dislike” tape playing in our heads. Perhaps that is why I felt so crazy after hours of liking and disliking men I never got the chance to meet. Never got a chance to really know. 

Vignette de crazy #3: Why do I need love NOW?

What, dear lord, made me think it was a good idea to create an online dating profile after having very recently exited a long-tern relationship with someone that I still cared deeply for?

What, dear lord, made me think it was a good idea to create an online dating profile after having very recently exited a long-tern relationship with someone that I still cared deeply for? The bigger question was, what was making me want love….right NOW? I think it was the longing. The same longing that led me to blissful summer-night picnics in the park, cruises throughout the Bahamas, kisses, Valentines Day to-do lists, lying, heartache, break-ups, loneliness and longing…again with the longing. In the midst of this endless longing I lost myself. I was longing for a love I felt I did not already have inside of me. In many ways the pursuit of romance became a clever way for me to avoid feeling an acute sense of loneliness and pain. In Ruling your world the Sakyong says “The Buddha taught that suffering is a result of roaming, the urge to keep looking for an external source of happiness”. However, according to the Sakyong, all relationships, including romantic relationships, are foundations for profound spiritual practice. A catharsis for spiritual engagement that somehow, magically, leads us back to our own basic goodness. But was I ready to engage in this way? (the answer is a resounding NO!) So, nonetheless, like the very good Buddhist practitioner that I am, I figured six months of single life was about enough for me. And certainly, like the poison it can be, this longing would somehow kill me. I was convinced that someone out there could make me happy. And so, I sorted on.

The lesson: self-contentment. 

Three days later, I deleted my profile because I was dateless and still unhappy. It was a Monday. I was exhausted and bitter and had so many unanswered questions about myself floating around in my head. I had to slow down. I had to get re-centered. I had to meditate. So that Monday, in December, I dragged myself back to the meditation cushion in the corner of my living room and with a sad, broken-heart, I paused and asked myself this final question: “What do I want? What do I really want?” I breathed deeply into the heaviness that I felt in my chest. The same heaviness you feel when you’re the last person picked for the team, or when you find out your best friend has been lying to you. I breathed again. The heaviness lessened a little. And a little more. Soon, the word “contentment” fizzled up out of thin air. Perhaps that was it. Maybe hours of agonizing over a profile picture, and mindlessly sorting through random, unknown faces of men I’d never meet, perhaps that was my own really bad attempt at finding contentment. The Sakyong defines contentment as that indestructible feeling of confidence and happiness that arises regardless of circumstance. Regardless of how we are viewed by others. Regardless of those things that make us proud or those things we’d like to keep tucked away from ourselves and from others. Regardless of whether we are single or in romantic partnership. Or enjoying the company of friends or alone. Maybe, just maybe, we are always just looking for that that feeling of contentment that comes from getting to know our own basic goodness. I want to believe that this feeling is always available to me, waiting to be breathed into, waiting to be unpacked. That must have been it all along. So I took another deep breath and contemplated on that some more. And soon a smile spread across my face. I was OK! Everything was going to be OK!

Brandon Sloan
Brandon is currently a doctoral student in the MGH Institute of Health Professional’s Doctorate of Physical Therapy program in Boston Massachusetts. He is also a licensed massage therapist and holistic body worker. In his free time he enjoys free writing in his journal, dancing like a maniac, and attending the Boston Shambhala Centers 30’s and Under Meditation group on Tuesday evening.