The Dharma of Online Dating

In our March 2019 issue, Lindsay Kyte explored the dharma of dating as she followed her friend Alicia navigating the wacky world of online dating. Now, in part two, we continue to follow the journey as Alicia navigates meeting her matches face-to-face.

Lindsay Kyte
27 March 2019 / Martin-DM

The Beatles sang “All You Need is Love.” But we who swim in circles in the wacky waters of online dating beg to differ. Besides love, we also need some wisdom to help us navigate the truths and false stories (about ourselves and others) that come to the surface as we search for authentic connection in this extremely artificial environment.

To help Alicia get ready to meet “Mark” for their first face-to-face date following their initial online courtship, I asked our two Buddhist relationship experts for advice. Yael Shy, author of What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond, offers her this advice on the four noble truths of dating.

“First, there is suffering—a sense of life being unsatisfactory,” Shy says. “Second is the cause of that suffering, which is grasping at outcomes we can’t control, including other people’s affections, and forgetting our interconnection to all of life.

“Fortunately, there’s the third noble truth: that suffering can come to an end when we remember our own true nature, which is love and connection. Finally, there is a path to rediscovering that love and connection, which is the fourth noble truth.”

I tried to not be invested, and then I had the most romantic, tender date ever.

Buddhist teacher Melvin Escobar reminds Alicia that dating offers many opportunities to practice Buddhism’s eightfold path.

“We start with wise speech,” he says. “Are you being truthful in your profile, clear about your intentions for dating, communicative when it’s not working out (as opposed to just ghosting), and considerate of the impact of your words? Next is wise intention—what are your intentions for dating? For wise action, ask yourself if your actions are causing harm to yourself or others. Are you misusing your sexual energy? Are you respecting your own and others’ boundaries?

“Next is wise livelihood: Is the person you’re dating in a business that is an affront to your values? Wise view: Are you seeing things as they are? Wise effort: Are you practicing self-care during the dating process? Are you trying too hard or not taking healthy risks? Wise mindfulness: How absent-minded are you when you are swiping? Are you truly present on a date? Finally, wise concentration: What are you concentrating on? Wise concentration can lead to a more profound experience of things as they are.”

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Meeting Your Match

Alicia, with our committee of friends cheering her on, met Mark for the first time at a local craft brewery. Their conversation never stopped flowing. “We had both lived in Asia, and that experience of being othered bonded us,” Alicia says. “We had the same sense of humor. I asked him why he was online and what he wanted. He said, ‘I just want someone to get me.’”

However, Alicia’s brain was telling her other tales of how it was going. “For me, there was, at the time, no real indication that he was into me, and I wasn’t giving out any vibe that I was into him.” After perhaps one too many Tom Waits ales, Alicia decided they should get some pizza and go to a nearby park.

“When we got there, the park was full of people. Two hours in, we look up and we’re the only two there.” Mark asked if he could give Alicia a hug. It turned into a kiss. They ended up talking and holding hands for hours. “It was the best date I ever had,” says Alicia. As they said goodbye, Alicia told him, “This was a great first meet.” But Mark corrected her, saying, “No, this was a great first date.”

Alicia laughed recounting this: “I tried to not be invested, and then I had the most romantic, tender date ever. It’s like the universe rolled its eyes at my trying to be detached, and threw this at me, saying, ‘Let’s see how you respond to this, Ms. Robot.’”

But soon Alicia’s brain started voicing doubts: “Maybe he only liked me because he was drunk. Maybe I imagined he was into me.” As a result, Alicia had her guard up on their second date. The conversation was stilted, there was no physical affection, and she had what she called a “silent meltdown” in her head, asking herself, “Why isn’t he as flirty? What did I do? Am I only attractive in a drunken haze? Why does this happen to me all the freaking time?”

Then something clicked. “I realized that he didn’t know what I was thinking,” she says. “So I said, ‘Could you just hold my hand?’ He said, ‘Yeah, sure!’” The two cuddled in hammocks on the boardwalk, and Mark said he didn’t want the date to end. But, still feeling anxious, Alicia insisted she had to go.

“I judged the whole evening harshly after that silent meltdown,” she says. “The story became bigger than what was actually going on. I was completely aware of doing this, but I had no control over myself.”

Later that night, Alicia got a text from Mark wondering if she had enjoyed the date. “I realized I actually did enjoy it,” Alicia says. “I didn’t notice the sweet tender moments of throwing our heads back laughing at nothing. My cautiousness played a huge role in what I had interpreted as no vibe. He was trying to read me, too. When I asked to hold his hand, I could actually physically see he was relieved. Then the date really happened.”

Alicia asked for a third date. Mark agreed, but had to cancel due to exhaustion. “At first, I was okay,” Alicia says. “I could make other plans. I am woman, hear me roar!” Then her insecurity reared its head, telling her he didn’t like her enough for a third date. Alicia’s ego tried to make it all better. “I messaged him that I was going out on first dates with other guys, but he was the only person I wanted more dates with,” Alicia says. “It was a mixture of trying to pump my ego up and still saying he is great. But I knew what I was doing.”

Mark was upset. He responded, “I think I’m waiting for someone to spend their time with me and not hedge their bets or weigh other options.” Alicia tried to backtrack, saying she didn’t know they were exclusive, and while Mark appreciated her honesty, he said his style is dating one person at a time. He wished her luck and said goodbye—he had decided to delete his profile. Online dating wasn’t for him.

Alicia knew she had messed up. “We each had the rare experience of meeting someone who was completely present, and there was a real space of emotional intimacy. So Mark assumed we were not going to date other people.”

Alicia understood. “A few years ago, I assumed exclusivity, and someone did the same thing to me,” she remembers. “Now I’m the one who’s terrified and finding fault and running—because I actually liked him.”

Alicia ended our interview by saying, “Really, Lindsay, I know we’re all secretly hoping for it, but I don’t think this article is going to have a ‘riding off into the sunset’ kind of an ending. We’re all a bit too wounded for that.”

I asked our experts, “How do we disrupt the stories we are telling ourselves and be present with what actually is?”

“One of my favorite Buddhist teachings is sometimes called the Arrow Sutta,” says Melvin Escobar. “According to this teaching, the first arrow of pain strikes us all. Yet, the deeper suffering happens with the self-inflicted second arrow, which represents the stories we tell ourselves about how things could have been or should be different.”

To disrupt our stories, Escobar says we need to practice awareness of our inner discourse and see the ways we are clinging to a limited version of ourselves. “We get to know how our own stories influence us when we are in relationship with others,” he says. “Our stories, especially deeper, older ones, tend to get replicated with people we are in relationship with. There’s no magical formula to interrupt this dynamic. It always comes back to our practice, to cultivating the spaciousness to distinguish between the first and second arrows.”

Yael Shy says there is no better practice for catching the stories we tell ourselves than meditation. “In fact, meditation is literally sitting and watching the mind construct stories over and over again,” she says. “The more we see how this works, the less we need to believe these stories when we chatter incessantly about ourselves and others.

“‘That’s just the mind, minding,’ I tell myself when my mind is taking me away from my breath—or my date. ‘Nothing to see here, folks. Let that go. Now, back to the object of my focus.’”

© Kate Daigneault / Stocksy United

Dating Yourself

Alicia went on dates with a few other matches. “They were lovely human beings, but there was absolutely no connection,” she says.

Alicia also faced what we fear most in these situations—being ghosted. One evening, our support committee got this message: “Hey all. I think I’ve been stood up!” Alicia was meeting her date in a restaurant near me, so I flew in, ready to reassure her that she should not take this to heart. However, the version of her I saw sitting there stopped me in the doorway. There Alicia was, at the bar, enjoying a meal and some fine tequila—by herself. She looked happy. She was making eyes at the bartender. I giggled in delight.

“After five minutes of his being late, I ordered my drink,” says Alicia. “At ten minutes, I ordered my food. No one else is going to affect my happiness. If he shows up, great, but I’m on a date with someone who wants to have a good time—me.”

When fifteen minutes passed, Alicia sent us the text. “Lindsay came over to save the day,” she recounted to us later, “but the funny thing was, there was no day to save. I wasn’t devastated, whereas before, I would have taken it personally. Somehow now, I know it isn’t about me if this person doesn’t show up.”

In online dating, we are putting our vulnerable hearts out there for people who may not treat them with respect.

At twenty minutes, Alicia’s date sent a message that he was stuck in traffic but on his way. We rolled our eyes at this. It’s basic manners—text right away if someone is waiting for you. Her date walked in as I was walking out, and he seemed startled by a small redhead stepping into his personal space and glaring at him. I guess Alicia’s committee members are not as forgiving as she is. I was seconds away from whispering, “You better apologize, punk!” with my finger in his face.

Because she hadn’t taken his flaky behavior personally, Alicia’s confidence was shining, and this date seemed into her. But Alicia wasn’t into him. “I had the most magical first date with Mark. I don’t know who could top that,” she says. After a few more dates with other matches, Alicia decided she needed to step back from dating. “I need some time to figure out what’s happening here.”

I asked our experts, “In online dating, we are putting our vulnerable hearts out there for people who may not treat them with respect. How do we not take their behavior personally?

“The truth is, online dating provides a mirror in which we see the state of our own heart,” says Yael Shy. “If you believe you are loveable and worthy, like Alicia did, you will have the courage to keep going out there to find others who reflect that back to you. If you have doubts about yourself, you will continually ask others to answer them: ‘Am I worthy? Am I good looking? Am I loveable?’

“The trouble is, nobody out there can give you answers to these questions,” Shy says. “They are too busy seeking the answers for themselves. Try not to waste too much time on figuring out why someone didn’t like you, what you did wrong, whose fault it is, etc. If they let you go, they are not right for you. Just because the restaurant is closed doesn’t mean it’s shameful that you went there when you were hungry. It doesn’t mean you need to stand outside the door and figure out why it’s closed and what you might have done to close it. It just means, for whatever myriad reasons, the restaurant is closed. Time to find another place for dinner.”

“Loving-kindness (metta) and self-compassion are essential for not taking people’s flakiness personally,” advises Melvin Escobar. “Make sure to watch out for the “near enemy” of metta, which is attached and conditional love. And, of course, notice when the “far enemy” of loving-kindness arises—hatred and aversion, which can be directed toward ourselves or those who flake on us.”

© Lumina / Stocksy United

Lessons in Love for Alicia (and Us)

Alicia stopped swiping and decided to come face-to-face with her big realizations about herself.

“I see my pattern,” she says. “I get triggered by something, a story I am telling myself. Then I kick that other person out of the castle, lock the door, bring up the drawbridge, and flood the moat. I act from fear. With Mark, I did something that I knew wasn’t going to end well and I couldn’t stop myself. I regret it, because I hurt someone else, and I hurt myself.”

Alicia says what has hit her hard is awakening to how much love has been around her all along, and how she was unable to see it because of the stories she was telling herself.

“I wish I hadn’t messed up with Mark,” she says. “I wonder how many opportunities I have missed out on? How many times could I have been in love or was loved? How many people are walking around missing out on love?

“Strangely,” says Alicia, “even though that makes me sad, it also gives me hope. Because I realized in doing this that I actually do want to be loved. I thought this was a journey of meeting other people. But it turned out to be a journey of meeting myself.”

Alicia pressed “delete” on her online dating profile. “I didn’t know I had so many versions of me,” she says, shaking her head at her lessons in love.

At the end of this journey, I asked our experts the big question: “How do we cultivate authenticity in this artificial environment?”

Remember that you are worthy of love, just by being alive.

To cultivate authenticity, Melvin Escobar says we have to feel safe in ourselves. “We can only build real intimacy to the extent we are vulnerable. But can we be safely vulnerable?” he asks. “Because when we make ourselves vulnerable, old harms can get activated.

“Authenticity can only arise when there is equanimity,” says Escobar. “It is only natural when we meet a potential romantic partner to have anxiety and doubt, which are opposites of equanimity. However, if you’re striving for equanimity you might miss the mark and can land in indifference, the near enemy of equanimity. Dating is basically a declaration of needs—for love, for companionship, for connection. Indifference prevents these authentic needs from arising, though it might make us feel safe.”

The answer? “Mindfulness,” says Escobar. “Mindfulness is the best way to deal with our reactivities in dating.”

“To me,” says Yael Shy, “being authentic means accepting everything: All of the excitement and hope and even desperation. All of the fear and anxiety and questions. It means taking a deep breath and committing, over and over again, to being honest and brave. And if it becomes too much, I think taking a step back, like Alicia did, is never a bad thing.

“Just remember that you are worthy of love, just by being alive,” Shy says. “It’s okay to be bummed when something doesn’t work out. It’s okay to feel hurt and grieve the loss of a rejection. But when you can, gently remember who you are. Remember your beautiful, shining, interconnected nature. Come back to your original desire—why you signed up to online date in the first place. Your vulnerability and open heart may be why you are suffering now, but they are also the only path forward.”

Shy reminds us that the Buddha once said, “Be a light unto yourself.”

“You are the light,” she says. “You are made of love. Partners are just the beautiful people with whom we walk along the path.” May all of us, and Alicia, remember these words as we put our vulnerable hearts forward, walking our paths toward loving and being loved.

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte works as a freelance journalist, playwright, and performer.