For many love is the basis of their spiritual world-view, be that universal love or a deep personal love. This sense of the importance of love as a key spiritual truth is widespread, yet few of us explore the notion of how love is expressed in our intimate relationships. For many centuries who and how we love was defined by conventions largely put forward by religion and state, and in many ways this is still the case. But in the last two decades members of the Pagan, Tantra and more general spiritually focused communities have begun to explore the nature of love beyond the confines of previous beliefs.
One such concept that has been gaining popularity within these communities is polyamory. Polyamory is a philosophy or ‘love-style’ as it is sometimes called based upon open and honest relationships between, in some cases, many lovers. And for some of its adherents at least it represents a spiritual quest to transcend possessiveness or the idea that we can only have committed loving relationships with one person at a time. It is clear even from a cursory look at the origins of the polyamory movement that spirituality was a central tenet of the early voices in this growing movement. The term polyamorous was coined by Morninglory Zell Ravenheart a key member of the Church of All Worlds, an earth focused or pagan spiritual organisation. She was probably drawing upon the earlier term polyfidelity created by the members of the Kerista commune, the term means a committed multi-partner relationship not generally open to new members. This differs from the wider term polyamory which simply means many loves and emphasises that this can be different for each relationship.
This idea of communal living and open relationships may seem like a notion from the past, but in fact many communities continue to uphold these values. One such community famous for its views on polyamory is the Zegg community in Germany. Zegg which stands for The Centre for Experimental Social Design when translated from German and as a group seeks to explore the nature of not just love and relationships but also spirituality, ecological concerns and radical openness between members. Georg Lohmann, one of the original members explained to me that he has explored polyamory or some form of open relationship for at least 25 years. He maintains he is not unique and that many members have lived happily with more than one partner for decades. The key to making this kind of relationship work according to the members of Zegg is focusing on communication. Zegg holds regular meetings so the members can share their experiences and feelings as a community and benefit from the input of others. While many of us may feel revealing every detail of our lives in this way would be very alien the members of Zegg find a spiritual support structure in this way of life.
Deborah Anapol, a pioneer within the polyamory movement and author of several books on love and polyamory including her latest, Polyamory in the 21st Century, considers spirituality, community and her non-monogamy as being intimately linked, she explains ‘to me spirituality is about living from the awareness that we’re all One, and seeing through the illusion that Ego – me, my, mine – is separate from and superior to the rest of life. Polyamory challenges our sense of separation, ownership, and control. It takes our personal boundaries to the next level. Polyamory is a very powerful way to spotlight egoic agendas and show us where we are still attached. Not that any of this is wrong, but it’s a good reality check for inflated spiritual egos.’ This view of polyamory as a way of challenging the individualism that is often taken for granted in our culture is widespread in the polyamorous community worldwide.
It seems that many have arrived at their view through a combination of seeking a liberated view of femininity and a desire to understand relationships and ultimately love through their own personal life choices. Eva, a 23 year old from Sweden now living in Brighton, was very close to taking the conventional route in her life when she had a kind of epiphany, ‘I was on the brink of getting married, but somehow my feminist side kept saying no, no, no. I wasn’t quite sure why, it was just something in the core of my being. Then I found some information on polyamory online and I began to realise that marriage just wasn’t for me. After-all my spiritual understanding is about celebrating the divine feminine, yet getting married still has all the symbolism of men being above women, that just doesn’t sit well with me. Spirituality must be based upon equality.’ Eva is now in committed polyamorous relationship with a primary female partner and several other lovers, she explains, ‘Soon after I broke off my engagement I got involved with my current partner. I had always known that I wanted to be with a woman, but somehow had got caught up in convention and pleasing my family rather than following my own needs. I read Dossie Easton’s book The Ethical Slut, a book that has inspired many people to become poly. I felt totally changed after thinking about what she was saying, love and sexuality really can be anything we want them to be. I realised that having several partners does not make you a bad person and we as women should not tolerate men defining us negatively for experiencing pleasure with whomever we choose. Marriage is not virtuous or even desirable to me anymore, it is just something that people do because that’s what people did in the past – it’s time for the world and relationships to evolve.’
Although there are many married polyamorous people Eva’s view does go right back to the roots of polyamory to the often misunderstood Free Love movement. I’m not talking here about the heady abandon of the 1960s, I’m referring to the movement that in many ways was the forerunner of feminism and that also embraced many progressive spiritual ideas. Popular at the turn of the 1900s their vision was of an inclusive, equal society for all. The ‘free’ in the name Free Love did not mean do whatever you want with whomever you want without thought, as some believe, in-fact it meant free from legal limitations on how we love, such as marriage, which at the time was clearly an oppressive institution towards women. Many of those in the free love movement also had other spiritual views, ranging from the Eastern and Western synthesis philosophy called Theosophy, through to vegetarianism as a spiritual understanding. This range of new and
transformative attitudes was probably what inspired the idealists of the 1960s to draw upon their writings and worldview. Yet despite the modern stereotype the original form of free love was not necessarily even about sex, as some even practised celibacy. Free love was about a genuine freedom of choice to love without laws and society limiting personal expression and for this reason asexuality, celibacy and platonic love were as valid as any other choice. This is why they were also among the first writers to support gay rights; in fact many of the freedoms and choices we now take for granted can be traced to this inspirational early movement.
I have found that many polyamorous people hold some notion of love and spirituality as extending into the realm of personal and social freedom, Jamie Heckert, 35, from Poole, puts it ‘My experience of polyamory is inseparable from spirituality and from my anarchist politics. In one sense, this path is about learning to share. On a deeper level, it’s about learning to let go of claims of ownership in the first place. The person I’ve lived with and loved with the last 13 years is not my partner or my boyfriend. I often tell him, “I’m glad to be boyfriending with you.” Our relationship is a process – a living thing, not an object, not property. There is something I’ve learned from Ursula Le Guin’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching and that is that to possess something is to be possessed by it. If I hold on to a certain idea of how my life should be, and what my relationships should be like, I will be held by those ideas, captivated by those images. If I remain present to the actual, living, evolving experience of relating to myself and others, I am free. It’s ok to experience the pain of shame or jealousy, the pleasures of sex, of romance. Why hold on to them, why be held by them?’ For Jamie polyamory reminds him that great suffering can arise from the way we divide ourselves through our sometimes possessive monogamous actions, ‘For me, spirituality refers to an awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. Actually, I would go even further and suggest that there are no separate things, just a single unified existence. That we come to imagine ourselves as separate from other beings and from the land is the source of great suffering. This connects to my appreciation of Non Violent Communication which is based on the fundamental question, how can we learn to take pleasure in other people’s needs being met, to recognise that the needs and desires of others are deeply intertwined with our own? There is no competition when we realise this. If someone I love also loves another, I might take joy in this love. And if it triggers jealousy, this a reminder of how much I value the experiences of love, of companionship, of sexual pleasure. This, too, then can be a source of joy. How wonderful to remember what I love about being alive! This is not automatic or easy, but neither is monogamy. Whatever boundaries we negotiate in our relationships with each other, learning to let ourselves love is a lifelong practice.’
While there are those like Jamie who see polyamory in the deeply philosophical sense of being non-attached to their partners or even the notion of a relationship, for many polyamory is simply a way of allowing a greater sense of family into their lives. Tania, a 44 year old mother of two lives with her three partners just outside London. ‘My husband and I have been together for nearly twenty years and I also have another male partner who joined the relationship nine years ago. My husband also has another partner who also lives with us part time. It can be crazy at times with my teenage daughters plus the four adults but it works very well for us. The kids get so much extra support from the adults and we all benefit from the extended sense of family in general. I can’t really imagine living or loving with just one person again – I know it’s not for everyone but it can really work.’ Tania is also a Buddhist and sees this as central to her lifestyle. ‘My husband and I met at a Buddhist retreat when I was just beginning to explore my spirituality; I guess he was my first encounter with a genuinely spiritual man who understood me. The only problem was he was already involved and I didn’t know what to do at the time, to my surprise his then partner was quite happy for him to spend time with me and explained that she did not want to hold someone from love. That had a big impact on me and I later discovered this kind of thinking was called polyamory.’ Tania’s eldest daughter aged seventeen explains,’I would never want to live in a monogamous household, I feel like I gain so much from the open-mindedness and support of the adults around me. Some people worry when they hear I live in this kind of environment, but for me this is because people can’t get beyond the sexual issue and are imagining things that just don’t happen in supportive poly families – everyone is very responsible towards me and my sister’.
Sex does create the biggest obstacle to polyamory being understood and respected by the spiritual and wider community. Despite their commitment to lasting relationships and focus on values of non-possessiveness many still dismiss the way polyamorous people live as simply about sex. This reveals a lot about the way sex is used in our culture and how it is focused on as a major goal especially in the mass-media. While taboos about sex are largely gone in British society, as a resent study showing the United Kingdom as one of the most promiscuous in the world shows, sex is still exaggerated and exploited at every turn.
Deborah Anapol believes that we must nurture a much healthier attitude towards sex, without which we will remain divided and alienated from each other. As well as being polyamorous Anapol also draws upon Tantra in her work, which she views as an understanding of love, spirituality, sexuality and freedom as being intimately linked. She explains, ‘Tantra describes an embodied approach to spirituality, an attitude of passionately loving life itself. One goal of all authentic spiritual practices is to raise the vibration, or energy level, sometimes called kundalini, so that our awareness, and our identity, is not limited to the physical body, the emotions, or the mind. When the kundalini rises, it naturally wants to discharge, and one way this can happen is through orgasm which usually dissipates the energy at least temporarily. Some spiritual paths forbid sexual expression in order to conserve this precious energy, and also to avoid the distraction and drama of family life. Tantra embraces all of life, and teaches many ways to cultivate the life force so that it enhances whatever we find ourselves experiencing. As a woman and a mother, embodied spirituality is what feels natural.’ Anapol believes that sex can be a way of connecting to the divine or transcendent, ‘It is through deep or intense sexual experiences that people most often catch a glimpse of Source, Spirit, the Divine within themselves. Sex can also dissolve the sense of separateness and open the heart to a sense of connection with All That Is. Sexual energy is our life force, the creative impulse and the urge to merge.’ But for many of us the idea of polyamory, sexuality and spirituality may sound great but we can’t help but get drawn back to the realities of our own jealousy and fear. Of course polyamorous people do experience all of these emotions too, it is just that they focus on them and use them as a way to grow.
Varpu, 27 from Helsinki, Finland explains how this works in her life, ‘The best thing about polyamory is that it allows personal growth. Every time I tackle a jealous feeling when I see someone I care about with someone else, I feel like the queen of the world. It makes me feel strong, empowered, independent and happy. I have control over my negative feelings and I can deal with them. Every time I have a difficult conversation with someone I love, if they feel insecure or jealous for instance, and we end that discussion loving each other even more, I know that there is truth in what I do. When I let someone go and love and experiment with others, and they come back, I feel loved. When I experience compersion and feel truly, honestly happy that someone I love is happy with someone else, that is an amazing feeling. I look at myself five years ago, when I was still trying to be monogamous, and realise that I know a lot more about love right now.’ Varpu feels that polyamory and the hardships that sometimes accompany it are a way that we can all develop emotionally, she explains, ‘The key to growth is challenging yourself. You may feel that something is too much to bear and you can’t live through it. But when you allow things to happen, let your partner date someone else for instance, you realise that they, in fact, don’t kill you but make you stronger. Don’t be afraid to feel negative feelings but keep in mind that they’re your feelings – don’t blame others for them. Let them come, experience them fully, think where they come from and try to replace them with positive feelings.’
It seems that while polyamory is not for everyone it is clear that for many it is a genuine life-affirming way of exploring some of our most challenging human emotions. It also seems that in a society in which marriages break down almost as much as they succeed and jealousy and possessiveness destroy families and deep loving bonds, there is something deeply spiritually important to learn from polyamory – a vision of life where blind emotional attachment to
another person is challenged within ourselves for our own and our partner’s benefit. It is clear that while for many the ideal of a single life-long partner remains as the standard by which they will live their lives, polyamory is an understanding that loving more than one person is not a lessor form of love or even an alternative, it is simply a realisation that love expresses itself in many different forms. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, love is the highest spiritual ideal and by embracing polyamory we at the very least open to the vast tapestry of forms that it can take, regardless of how many partners we may or may not have polyamory represents a vision of love and intimacy in which freedom, maturity and growth lie at its core.