Friday, March 27, 2009
“Bliss Coach” KAMALA DEVI
Living and Teaching the Art of Loving More than One
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Throughout the debate over marriage equality for same-sex couples, advocates for same-gender marriage have insisted that the only rule for the institution that they want to change is the one that traditionally limits marriage to partners of opposite genders. They’ve said that they don’t want to loosen the restrictions on marrying family members or the rule that a marriage can only be between two people. In response, opponents have accused supporters of trying to open a slippery slope that will lead to people being able to marry multiple partners — and then, with the snideness typical of the modern-day Right, they start making repulsive jokes about people wanting to marry their brothers, sisters or pets.
But what about people whose emotional makeup simply does not allow them to be happy and fulfilled in a relationship with just one other person? In the 1960’s they were called “free lovers,” and some experiments in communal living included rules allowing members to have sex with each other in any combination, as long as both — or all — parties consented. More recently the term “polyamory” has been coined to describe multiple-partner lifestyles that, unlike polygamous relationships — which usually imposed strict monogamy on the female partners and were heavily male-dominated and sexist — allow men and women emotional equality in pursuing many sexual partners, either in addition to or instead of a primary one-to-one pairing.
Kamala Devi is a local woman whose business card describes herself as a “bliss coach” as well as the author of four books. Both in person and through her Web site, www.partnerplayshop.com, she offers training for people interested in living a polyamorous lifestyle and learning the skills needed to maintain a balance between multiple partners — which, as she says below, can often be a lot harder than sustaining a relationship with just one other person. She spoke at two community workshops organized by the San Diego Bisexual Forum last summer and, in this interview, discusses her own journey into polyamory and the lessons her experience has to offer the rest of us.
Zenger’s: How did you get involved in living a polyamorous lifestyle?
Kamala Devi: My parents, though basically monogamous, were not faithful to each other. I think that’s really common. Children in that situation either grow up while their parents are divorcing, or they experience parents staying together in quiet desperation, and/or lying and cheating. From that experience, I saw at an early age that the dominant paradigm of monogamy isn’t working, and I wanted to find a relationship model that’s based in truth.
I came out at 16. I started to believe — and declare — that the whole heterosexual dating thing wasn’t for me. I wasn’t ready to call myself “Gay,” but I would say, “Hey, I have a boyfriend, and I have these best-friends, these women that I absolutely adore.” When I was 16, my boyfriend allowed me to have girlfriends and explore sexually with them. I didn’t know the word “polyamory” or any term for it, but I had a lot of fun being kind of deviant.
It wasn’t until I went away to college that I started looking for labels, and I felt like I was being told I had to choose: “You’re straight, you’re Bi or you’re Gay.” I knew I wasn’t “straight,” and “Bi” seemed so uncertainly grey, so I identified publicly as a Lesbian for about seven years and went through several attempts at Lesbian monogamy. I kept trying to find the “one” other half, and that didn’t really work. In fact, it kept not working — over and over again.
Then I met a man who was really comfortable with me having a girlfriend, and introduced me to the idea of plural relationships: loving more than one. It was quite revelatory. This was about 15 years ago, and what that looked like for me was a radical departure not only from my identity as a Lesbian, but this black-and-white thinking of “either/or.” His whole position was “both/and.” So I followed him to Hawai’i, where there was an established polyamorous community. We lived in a commune, in a sort of free-love community that didn’t have labels.
Actually, the first time I heard the term “polyamory,” it was really uncomfortable for me. I wasn’t ready for it, and yet I had a boyfriend and a new girlfriend, and he had two other lovers, and I was living with one of his other lovers. We had this whole constellation of lovers, and yet we didn’t have labels. Meanwhile I was working really intensely on Gay pride and political movements, and really trying to further the Bisexual identity. I identified as Bisexual and I didn’t understand polyamory, other than knowing that as a Bisexual woman, to be fully expressed, I wasn’t going to limit myself to one gender.
I didn’t really take it much farther than that until I met my current lover seven years ago. I had come to a place where I was clearly Bisexual, and at that point everyone in my life accepted me as I was, and then there was this other thing where I had him and two other women lovers. So I understood that I’m not just Bisexual but I’m capable of, and I thrive in, multiple loves. Meanwhile, I was teaching yoga and tantra and all of these other transmissions about love and personal satisfaction, and what I was living was this thing that I felt was somewhat unteachable. But people were attracted to the way I lived — “Wow, you have a girlfriend and a boyfriend and a few lovers, and everybody seems happy” — and they started asking me how do you do it and what it’s about.
I remember being invited to polyamory at NYCD. They have a “Poly Pride” in New York, and that’s a big new movement that models itself to some degree after Gay Pride, but also has been influenced by the BDSM community. I remember being invited to that and thinking, “I don’t really want to wave a flag around. This is me and who I am as polyamorous, because I just have so much acceptance, but that’s just how I am.” I really felt like a lot of my early Gay activism had come from a place of non-acceptance. People didn’t accept me, so I had to be “out and proud” until they totally accepted me.
So I didn’t have much political energy around polyamory, but then I was really looking around at my friends and lovers who were polyamorous, who were being discriminated against: only one partner is being invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the family, or there is no legal three-way marriage. I know long-term triads that are going very well, but we have to settle for one person being our primary because that’s what the law will recognize, and the other person not. There were different political issues that came up, and I just observed that injustice and then in my teaching, in my life coaching, more and more people who were attracted to me, who were people who said, “You seem to be working this out in your life. Can you help us? How do I initiate a threesome?” Anything from the very beginning level to, “I want to divorce my husband, because I don’t believe in the convention of marriage, and I want to re-establish a relationship with him and multiple lovers. How do I open that conversation, or save my marriage by doing that?”
I think there’s a readiness in society to discuss this when I kept getting calls from national media sources like the Tyra Banks Show and The Morning Show in New York. Then there was a British program that did an hour-long documentary on my lifestyle and the coaching that I do. All of this international attention was fun. They flew me to Germany to look at what a polyamorous community looks like in Zaag, which is close to Berlin, so I got this broader perspective on the state of polyamory around the world, and understood that there really aren’t spokespeople and role models.
A lot of polyamorous individuals are struggling with trying to chart their own course. They’re blazing their own trails, but they’re re-inventing wheels and they’re making a lot of the same mistakes that, if there really, truly was more leadership and more resources, they wouldn’t have to go through a lot of that. So I feel like I basically stepped into — or I got pulled into — teaching polyamory, which is something I never set out to do. And right now, I’d say a good 50 percent or more, maybe 50 to 70 percent of the work I’m doing, is coaching polyamorous individuals and writing or teaching workshops in that realm.
Zenger’s: What would you say would be the major pitfalls facing people who try to get involved in polyamory?
Devi: There are a lot of challenges. It’s hard to say what the major ones are. There’s definitely judgment from society. There’s jealousy and lack of support, lack of role models. There’s misunderstanding. A lot of people think that polyamory is swinging, or something — it’s just misunderstood.
There’s also the challenge that when you come together with somebody in the dominant paradigm of monogamy, there are certain cultural assumptions and rules; but when you release those rules and agree to be in your full expression, now you’ve got one person who’s got their own interest and capacity and configuration of what poly might look like, and they have to negotiate that with another person, and then add into the mix those multiple partners that are all having to negotiate that. What it becomes is a lot of processing, a lot of negotiation, a lot of communication, and frankly there’s not a lot of support available for people on how to have those kinds of conversations, and how to streamline and do that work. Again, it comes down to not enough training and resources.
My own journey in polyamory has brought me to a place where I need to be teaching this. I need to be sharing it, mostly because there’s so much that wasn’t taught to me. I think almost all of those pitfalls can be helped with some decent mentorship, and I don’t mean “mentorship” like coaching. I mean just support, basically community support. That’s another piece: just the lack of community. If you live in Middle America, where do you go to meet other polyamorous people?
Zenger’s: You mentioned that one of the forms of discrimination against polyamorous people is that you can only marry one other person. Given that the Queer community has yet to persuade any electorate in the United States that same-sex couples ought to be able to get married, isn’t that a hurdle that’s not likely to be breached in our lifetimes?
Devi: I don’t really know. I don’t have an answer to that question because that’s not my cause. I’ve got a primary partner, the father of my child, and if I wanted us to, we could get a marriage license. He’d certainly be willing to do so. But as free lovers, why buy into that whole paradigm, anyway? I don’t need to get into a debate about all the privileges that come with that. I certainly wish that there was fairness for the Gay and Lesbian community, but why wait for the legislature to wake up and do that for us? More people could be waking up and creating conscious agreements to be in triadic, or more, relationships, regardless of whether it’s officiated by the state. I think that issue is not what’s stopping people from their full expression. What’s stopping people is guilt, shame and the internal demons that tell people it’s not O.K. to love more than one person.
Zenger’s: Would you say that the Gay community is making a mistake pushing for same-sex marriage rights and thereby perpetuating the discrimination against non-monogamous people? The people who are arguing for same-sex marriage are saying, “We’re not challenging the monogamous requirement. We’re just asking that our relationships be let in.”
Devi: I have the utmost gratitude and respect for people who are on the frontlines of that fight. I am so grateful that they’re doing that, and on any day I will show up at the polls or show up at a rally and support that. But for me, it’s like we all have our own battles, and we have to choose them. My calling is not political; it’s more personal and spiritual growth. I want to help people accept, in them, whatever is holding them back from being able to love more than one person.
Zenger’s: You said a moment ago that polyamory is not the same thing as “swinging.” Could you explain what the difference is?
Devi: Yes. “Swinging,” generally, is a modified form of monogamy in which partners open the relationship to casual sexual encounters [with others], and sometimes those sexual encounters are deeply satisfying and can happen over long periods of time. However, polyamory is less about sex and more of an emphasis on the emotional connection, the spiritual connection, creating a life together, basically about emotional bonds. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the biggest distinction.
Frankly, I’m a swinger as well. I have no judgment about swinging. I don’t mind having casual sex at a sex party, while my husband’s there. But I so understand that that’s not everybody’s flavor, so the distinction is an important one to make. “Swinging” implies that there’s an open primary relationship, a relationship that’s open to outside sexual encounters. Polyamory may not have a primary relationship at all. It might be a whole constellation or a network of lovers and friends, some of whom might be primary and many of whom may not, but their relationships and their bonds are much deeper.
Zenger’s: I can see why people would have problems with the contradictions. As you said, we’re all brought up to believe that there is “the one” out there, the person who is right for us. The rising divorce rate, if nothing else, should act as a disconfirmation of that theory! But it is still what we are raised to believe. It is still descended from the whole reason marriage was established in the first place, which is to ensure that we know who the father of that particular child is, so we can maintain a patrilineal rather than a matrilineal line of inheritance. This whole idea that we’ve been brought up with, basically brainwashed into, is that there is that one other person out there, and when we find him or her we shouldn’t be looking around any farther. So how do you help people who have polyamorous attractions get over that conditioning?
Devi: Some of the deepest work in my coaching is around needs. And when I get people to identify what their needs are, whether that’s romantic or sexual or just for attention or reassurance — when people really identify the needs that they have, the ones that are being met, the ones that are not being met, and they come to accept that one person can never meet all of their needs, then there’s a natural shift that happens where people stop looking for one other half that’s going to complete them.
Zenger’s: I can see that this whole realization might really freak someone out. In terms of out social understanding of what love is and what relationships are, it would probably freak them out more than realizing that they have a same-sex attraction.
Devi: It blows the door open! As I said, it’s not an either-or, black-and-white thing. It’s rather like someone has this sense that they were colorblind before, and now there’s this whole spectrum. And it is overwhelming. The possibilities are intense, and that’s why there is so much to be taught and modeled around how to maintain healthy agreements and boundaries and communication, so that you can have multiple healthy relationships instead of just going mad or being overwhelmed.
It’s sad to see when it happens, but I’ve seen many people who fry their systems by falling in love too much. Love is a drug, and it can just really overload the brain and someone’s whole physiology. People can awaken to the fact that they’re poly and take on so many lovers, and not have any tools to make it sustainable, that they quickly say, “Polyamory is too intense. It doesn’t work for me,” and they run back to being monogamous because they “tried that” and it didn’t work. Or they had a lover who tried it and didn’t have the tools for it, and so they automatically decide, “Polyamory is not for me,” when what they had an exposure to was actually irresponsible. Maybe it had elements of cheating or chaos as opposed to a truly freedom-based relationship that’s responsible non-monogamy.
Again, it comes back to people need the tools to make it sustainable, because those aren’t being offered in mainstream monogamy. People aren’t being given the tools for how to handle jealousy, how to discuss when you have attraction to multiple people, and how to act in accordance with an agreement, or even how to negotiate agreements. These are all things that are just completely glazed over or hidden or not seen at all, unless you’re consciously seeking a sustainable non-monogamous relationship.
Zenger’s: I’ve got the impression that people in polyamorous relationships are just as hard, or maybe even more so, on so-called “cheating” than people in monogamous ones. How do you define the word “cheating” within a polyamorous context, and how do you handle it when it occurs?
Devi: I’d venture to argue that they are even harder on it, by far, because what you’re doing when you become polyamorous is that you’re agreeing, consensually, to engage in relationships openly. If you’re cheating, you’re really not polyamorous at all. They’re mutually exclusive. Cheating is when you betray somebody’s trust, breaking an agreement, doing that which you have said or agreed you would not do, and then you don’t tell that person — or even if you do tell the person — but it’s basically that you’re breaking that agreement.
In polyamory, you may have an agreement that you’re allowed to see whomever you want, but implicit in polyamory is the open communication: that you will tell your partners. This concept of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is not polyamorous. Giving your partner permission to do stuff that you don’t want to know about is not polyamorous. So cheating is definitely not polyamory, in my book.
Zenger’s: In your experience, and those of people you’ve known and worked with, how do polyamorous partners deal with “cheating” in that sense — breaking the agreements?
Devi: It’s really case-by-case. The only difference, I think, is that in polyamory there’s more of an emphasis on communication, so it may be a greater betrayal, but it also may be something that, because of that relationship skill in communication, can easily be worked out as well, and forgiven. It’s case-by-case as to whether that’s a deal-breaker or that’s just cause for more processing.
Zenger’s: You use the word “negotiation” again and again. I can see some people reading this getting the impression, “My god, I just want to play around. I don’t want to join the United Nations!”
Devi: I like that. I think that’s funny: “I want to open my relationship, but I don’t want to join the United Nations.” And that’s cool. To me, if you just want to have sex, be a swinger and meet somebody else, play with someone else that just wants to have sex. That’s great. There’s still a negotiation that needs to happen, and it may be short-cutted if you go to a sex club and there is, by virtue of showing up there, an unstated agreement that it’s going to be casual sex; or by going to these “lifestyle” Web sites where it’s about swinging. You can probably short-cut a lot of the negotiations you might have trying to open a monogamous person up to the concept of swinging.
As far as polyamory goes, I think the more that there is a learning curve, and the more skilled that you get at negotiation, and the more tools you get to communicate, that eventually you’re on the fast-track and you get to short-cut a lot of the heavy emotional processing. But I admit there’s a very deep learning curve to really master being in multiple relationships, and to do it well. You can do it irresponsibly or sloppily, or God could strike you with a lot of luck and you could find the perfect person that doesn’t need a lot of processing, but generally speaking it does take a lot of emotional heavy lifting.
Zenger’s: Isn’t this part of the problem: that a person in a polyamorous relationship risks betraying that many more people than a person in a monogamous relationship?
Devi: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it sure seems like whatever goes on in a monogamous relationship, as soon as you’re polyamorous and juggling multiple relationships, everything becomes exponential, whether it’s the depth of trust or the depth of love or the depth of betrayal. It can all be exponential.
Zenger’s: Not just in your own experience, but in the broader sense, in terms of the larger society, given the intense pressure on people to be monogamous, how do you explain the persistence of a polyamorous subculture?
Devi: They recently discovered a polyamorous gene in rats. It’s kind of funny whenever we compare ourselves to test rats, but there is definitely evidence that in the animal kingdom, at least, there’s polyamorous nature. One could argue that my polyamorous tendency is some reaction to my parents’ infidelity, and that it’s just nurture or whatever, but if you were to ask me, I’d tell you this is who I am, and I’ve met a number of people who’ve had a deep sense of, “This is who I’ve always been.”
I tend to feel that we all have our own unique constitution, and that some percentage of the population is always going to be capable of multiple loves, whether they choose to live that lifestyle or not. Just like with the Gay and Lesbian community, the more that society is open to it and supportive of it, like in the major cities where there are resources for Gays and Lesbians, the percentages are just going to be higher. I think there’s a really strong parallel there.
There’s something else I want to share, maybe because I was on the Tyra Banks Show and she was so eager and so skeptical that she cut me off and so I wasn’t able to say this, but she had asked is it like a free-for-all, or are there rules? By all means, especially in the spiritual tantra community, there are a lot of individuals whose commitment is to be true to themselves, every moment and make no contracts and just allow themselves to be in free love. But that’s not the game that I’m playing. My partner and I have had intense agreements about how open we are at different times, and in the last seven years that we’ve been evolving our polyamorous practice, we have distilled it down to four primary rules.
The first rule is open communication: we say everything, even that which is not being said. We withhold nothing. The second rule is condoms for penetrative sex. We use protection. And thirdly, we only engage in relationships that foster more love and power and pleasure in our in our lives together. We have a commitment and an agreement not to engage in relationships that drain our power — or, another way of saying it, are negative or miserable or jealous. Our commitment is to only be with people that add energy to our lives, as opposed to draining it. We call that the “no-chaos clause,” or “no-drama clause.”
The last one that we play with mostly right now — this one’s a little bit subjective. Sometimes we work with this, sometimes we don’t. But right now, because we have a two-year-old child that we’re raising together, we’ve given each other veto power. We’re in a primary relationship. We’re committed to having a healthy household for our son to grow up in, and if I feel that he’s seeing somebody that isn’t aligned with our value system, I have the right to say, “I don’t want you to see that person anymore.” That’s really unlikely to come up because I trust his judgment, but it does offer me, his primary, a token of security and control. So I feel like, no matter how in love he got with somebody else, I could always say, “You know what? This doesn’t work for me.”
Those are our four agreements. Lots of couples have lots more, but those are the basic agreements that have been working for us for some time now.