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It's not about sex. It's about Self
Feb. 18, 2008

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Compersion: The Only Way Out is In

Dear Friend and Reader:

WHEN I WAS living on Vashon Island in the Seattle area, driving around one day I discovered the island's little airport. A guy named George gave flight lessons there, and walking into his hangar one afternoon, I told him I was curious to learn more. He handed me a book called Stick and Rudder, written in 1944, still considered by many instructors to be the definitive flight instruction text.
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Naomi from the Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.
Its author, Wolfgang Langewiesche, begins the book by telling students that an airplane is not a car, even though it smells like one. Many things about flight dynamics go contrary to what would be common sense on four wheels. On wings, it's safer to be high up than close to the ground, and safer to go fast than to slow. Certain things that you must do as a pilot will violate every instinct in your body -- such as when your airplane stalls, you need to point it directly at the ground to pick up speed and resume flying.
When we find ourselves in an "in love" situation, you could say that we trade in our wheels for wings, but with this we have to adapt to the logic of the new environment. It is not always easy to keep an intimate relationship aloft, and one of the most disturbing things that can threaten its staying aloft is jealousy.
You might think of compersion, which is about embracing the love and pleasure of our lover or anyone else, as a study in flight dynamics. This is akin to pointing the nose of an airplane downward when you go into a stall created by a jealous episode. It takes courage to do this in any event, but particularly when you're caught flying low to the ground. But it may be the only way to keep from crashing.
Looked at another way, compersion is the full appreciation of another person's pleasure and indeed their existence -- something many relationships could use a lot more of. If we could indeed get there, this would be an excellent resolution for jealousy and much besides. Our relationships would be more interesting, more compassionate and best of all, make room for who we really are.
More than being a protective measure, compersion is a daring way to explore the emotional dynamics of pleasure and human interaction, as well as to work through attachment and guilt. It's a way to take a constructive approach to shame and embarrassment. For people who are considering opening up to their relationship to other partners, it's the thing that makes the process safe and sane.
There's really a way to do all of that?
I think so. It does not happen at once. It takes practice and dedication, though like many things there are breakthroughs along the way; quantum leaps that take us from one dimension of feeling to another. It helps to think of compersion as a process rather than as a thing or even an emotion. It is a way of living, of perceiving the world, and of conceiving of who you are. It is a way of loving and respecting people as independent from yourself, something that's extremely challenging in a culture that extols the virtues of narcissism. More than anything, narcissism is isolating. Compersion is a way of creating closeness where there might ordinarily be division.
Our Environment of Competition and Abandonment

It's not about sex. It's about Self
Sexy model performing in Warsaw, Poland. Photo by Eric Francis for Book of Blonde.
While we're considering the subject of relationships, and jealousy in particular, we need to remember that in our society, the ideas we are given about love are competitive. Only one person is going to "get" you; for any individual, the chances are six billion to one. There seems to be not enough of anything for all of us, so we have to compete; we have to be Number One. We may say this is the way of nature, but humans love to point out how far above nature they are.
Most of our ideas about life and love are based on scarcity. Even on a planet where you have billions of people without partners, many of them can't find a date on a Friday night. Have you ever considered how twisted that is? Such as when you're home alone and horny and want some company, and you realize there must be millions of people in this same condition? On a planet with so many people, you would think there would be nothing easier to find than other people, or someone special. On a planet where so many people want sex, you would think there would be plenty of it. Yet even in this state of total abundance, we manage to turn it around and live in the midst of a horrid shortage. (No matter what people may have, or need, unless they're willing to give and receive -- generally in that order -- there is no exchange possible. That is part of the problem.)
In this desert, we tend to fear two things. What we fear most is abandonment. Even if that one special person has found us, or vice versa, the big fear is that we will lose them; that they will find someone else. Often, even when we find love, we live with a sense of incredible frailty, sensitivity and imminent doom. This is usually based on the fear of not being good enough; indeed, at times on a total absence of self-esteem.
The second thing we fear is being close to others. A great many people don't like who they are inside, and are terrified about the prospect ofexposing this to others. Many people survive by making up a fake character, and if someone gets close to us, we may fear that they'll figure out we're empty and thus undeserving of love.
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Self-portrait for Book of Blue.
So, our relationships and desire to relate to one another are based on need created by being alone, and the rules are set by the fear of abandonment and the fear of intimacy. This is different than it might be, were we surrounded by awareness of sharing, abundance and self-acceptance. I don't know how fast we can change the environment, but as Prof. Harold Hill said about being a salesman, you have to know the territory. You need to recognize where you are, what the prevailing customs are, and identify the kinds issues that we all face.
I would add that most of the people you see on the street, or in your office, or your college classes, have been neglected or abused in some way. This abuse has come from parents, authority figures, spouses, partners and various other people who harm and betray the trust of people who need them. Most of the time, those wounds fester. People quickly get to the point where they refuse to deal with their pain; then decades go by and it seems hopeless.
So most of the people you see are expecting on some level to be abused and betrayed, and for them, this is actually a reasonable expectation. Or they are accustomed to carrying around unspeakable pain that they don't even acknowledge any more. When we open up to others or when they open up to us, we open or at least unlock the door to this material. Notably, we also open the door to working it out; and in truth we cannot do it any other way.
An Alternative Theory of Jealousy

Before I offer a more detailed description and brief history of the idea of compersion, let's first visit an alternative theory of jealousy. In an earlier edition of this series, we looked at the theory provided by William Pennell Rock in his article Jealousy and the Abyss.
Some feel that jealousy is about the desire to be preferred, or a sense of competition because we all want the best. Or it is a kind of extreme envy, where you want what someone else has. The author is proposing that these are superficial issues that conceal the true spiritual matter beneath jealousy -- and if we stay on the surface, we miss the benefit we can get from encountering the deeper levels directly. Jealousy will haunt us and never become a teacher or ally.
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Compersion by Via Keller, Studio Psycherotica from a photo by Neal McDonough.
He describes jealousy as the eruption of attachment, usually when a relationship is threatened by an outsider. The threat is a problem because of how closely we identify with our relationships as the source of our sense of existence and self-esteem. Often, this covers up the lack of a connection with existence, and is evidence of the tenuous nature of existence itself.
We cling to one another due to the inherently transient nature of relationships, and often out of material survival. He proposes that obsessive clinging is a struggle with a deeper existential issue -- we live in an impermanent (and I would add, often apparently hostile) world, where we often seem to have no solid ground to stand on. We struggle with trust, and we don't know what death is (or is not). Jealousy evokes all of this at once, and often arrives as something that feels as ominous as the hand of death.
My theory comes from another angle -- perhaps a more controversial one, the pleasure angle. I think it runs parallel to what William Pennell Rock is saying, though in our time of history, death is less controversial than love or pleasure.
Imagine a situation where you fear your lover, partner or love interest is having an experience with someone else. The jolt of panic or prolonged intense anxiety that comes with this perception is getting its energy from somewhere. Even though we might not feel so loving toward the beloved when we know or fear they're with someone else, there is passion involved. I have often noticed that underneath all the pathos (pain) of my jealousy is a pool of extremely hot erotic energy -- there is passion (a form of pleasure).
At first I used it as a survival technique. In one situation I remember, I was really into my lover Sabine: her beauty, my friendship with her and most of all, sex with her. The thought of her fucking someone else, which I knew was happening, was shattering. Then it occurred to me: the only way out is in. I dove straight into the feeling and recognized how erotic it felt to imagine her doing what she wanted to do, and I let those visions play out until I had made friends with them. In the creeping flames of jealousy, the pain seemed to gradually burn up and the pleasure and love I felt for her grew stronger. In truth, I was becoming a different person, much more solid and accepting of myself. There was one very significant reward for this: her other lover, when I met him, gave me the phone number of Joseph Trusso, who became my therapist and then mentor.
Later in the same relationship, we met a third person, a woman who I first became friends with and the next day had sex out in those woods I love so much. We went from that to some three-way sexual experiences -- and then the two women started to fall in love. Their sex was passionate, beautiful, and incredible to behold -- and many times, it excluded me. I had the choice: I could freak out, panic and feel abandoned, or I could expand my awareness and embrace them. It was actually pretty easy. For a while I coexisted with the panic of being excluded and the exquisite pleasure of loving their love and pleasure, and through this process I learned compersion. From that frame of reference, you cannot believe how hot it was to be with them when they were making love, for long periods of time focused entirely on one another.
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Sabine and Eric circa 1990, photographer unknown.
Personally, I think that, once they got over the initial shock, many people would find their lover being with someone else so hot, they would avoid the possibility because they might enjoy it "too much." It's a kind of naughty pleasure, one that contradicts everything we're taught about relating to that special someone. So instead, we have what old Dr. Freud called a reaction formation, and that is jealousy.
There is profound surrender involved in any situation where jealousy comes up -- in truth, you cannot do anything about how other people feel or what they want. We can try to violate that by attempting to gain control over the situation, or we can let go -- and letting go is one of the sexiest and most pleasurable things known to humanity. For as much as we cling and struggle to control ourselves, everyone and everything, what I think we we need the most is to let go.
I recognize that in the middle of the fear, rage, pain and loss associated with a jealous experience, this may feel like pointing the airplane directly at the ground -- it violates common sense, and goes contrary to all the body's instincts. There is no way you're supposed to be turned on by your lover caring about someone else, or be comforted by the knowledge that they're wrapped in someone else's arms. That would be a form of masochism, right? What do you do with all that overwhelming feeling of betrayal? And of course, even if you can get there, it's not socially acceptable. If you described feeling any pleasure at your partner's feeling of love for someone else, your friends might think you had lost your mind.
But having found one's mind is more likely to be true. The point here is simple: to be free. Remember, that's not socially acceptable. Human beings often come to love the bonds that chain them; the rooms that imprison them. We seem to love the drama of jealousy, its intensity, its pathos, and we do so without going underneath to see what's there. Attachment provides a sense of belonging. There are people who don't feel loved unless their partner gets jealous. There are people who don't feel loved unless their partner experiences guilt for having any pleasure that doesn't involve them. The logic of monogamous guilt is, "He will be mad at me if I do something that feels good and don't feel guilty." After a while this becomes a serious block to love. Control, which is often effected through guilt, is a direct obstacle to the space that love needs to be itself. Compersion allows what exists to be itself.

It's not about sex. It's about Self

Compersion: The Word and the Concept

THE WORD, and, more importantly, the idea of compersion were developed in the Kerista community living experiment in San Francisco's Haight District. (As you can see, the word has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, which I think is a little weird.) Kerista's roots go back some years prior to the Beat Generation in New York City. The experiment ran from 1971 to 1991. Members of this community shared income and practiced various forms of group marriage, also called polyfidelity. Astrology students will note the multiple references to the 8th house -- the place where sex meets money and marriage, which often comes with lots of possession and control.
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Naomi from Book of Blue by Eric Francis.
At Kerista, they did their best to give up that control, attempting to pioneer a new vision for the 8th house. Among the many discoveries made was that there were times when it was profoundly erotic to experience your partner loving or sharing pleasure with someone else. They believed it was important to have a word for this emotion, so people could talk about it more easily and even realize it was possible to feel this way. They called it compersion.
Compersion is a lot like compassion, but the origin, the core of the idea, is specifically sexual. You could say it's about recognizing what someone feels and embracing that, but I think that (like jealousy) it is closer to the existential level. Per means one or individual, so compersion is embracing the whole person and their experience. This is supposed to be what love is about. Unfortunately, once guilt and jealousy get into the picture, who a person is as an individual ends up being the last thing on most people's minds.
If you follow the experience, you may notice that it leads to a complete reversal of how we are supposed to experience life; it goes contrary to all the values of possession, control and commitment that characterize our relationships.
Compersion is the complete acknowledgement of who a person is, in their entirety, as apart from you. All they may feel, go through, need, experience, desire; their fears and repulsions and conflicts are all included. This is holistic empathy.
Some relationships have nothing to do with this elusive concept of who a person is. Even in more enlightened relationships, as it works out, we can do this for people close to us in many aspects of life, except for sexual. Embracing someone -- such as a lover or person we desire -- in the full spectrum of their erotic reality presents a specific challenge, because it can quickly take us to the empty place where we are no longer necessary. So often in this empty space we still love, because we don't have a choice, or because we refuse to not love.
It's as close to ego death or even death as we may safely approach, because our own identity and individual needs stand outside of the equation -- except in that we're aware enough to embrace the other in all their feelings and experiences.
This degree of embracing the other is entirely necessary for any sense of fulfillment in love, in erotic expression or in art. To do this we must first cease to exist, and then find existence within the emptiness. It is right there! In a sense, we are born into that emptiness, shorn of expectation, need, or the sense of loss involved with not being needed. Or, at the least, we recognize that we are needed because of the incomparable properties we possess. And in that space, we can actually exist.
To offer another person your compersion is to offer them and yourself the autonomy necessary for each of us to be ourselves; and for love to be itself. It is the living expression that only truth is erotic.
If you're ever wondering where all the erotic energy has gone from your life, this is something to consider.
Why Bother?

We might wonder, why bother with all of this, when you can just have a monogamous relationship? You know, keep things nice and simple? Well, that works in theory. When we look closer at a human psyche, we discover that people are more complex than they are monogamous. For the most part, monogamy is perpetuated by not discussing what we really feel. Even when two people really want to be together, often, anything that might threaten the relationship is quietly dropped from the discussion.
I'll give you an example. Relationships are supposedly about intimacy, which is supposedly about knowing someone well. Even in the most conventionally monogamous relationships, it's assumed that people will have their erotic fantasies when they masturbate. Those fantasies might include anyone, and usually the way we deal with this is to kind of ignore it. We claim a little private space and hide part of ourselves away there. We presume our partner will either not suspect, not want to know what we're thinking/feeling, or be disgusted by it.
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Simone from Book of Blue by Eric Francis.
Yet as it works out, that "private" space is usually the one we need to share in order to have any sense of intimacy. And within that region there are sure to be things that might "threaten" the relationship; things, however, that we might want to share. This is an example where compersion is a useful skill -- allowing a person to be who they are.
Few people love just one person, even if they're supposedly not sexual (again, what people think is as important as what they do). Many times, monogamous people have strong erotic feelings for others -- feelings they may feel guilty about, or have no clue what to do with. Opposite sex friends, or same sex friends if you're gay, can be viewed as potential threats, because who knows, the energy might connect and the relationship might turn sexual. Compersion is a resource to bring into any of these circumstances.
In many monogamous relationships, people have needs that they feel guilty about getting met outside the relationship. The guilt becomes the means by which people control themselves and one another. Compersion is a way to get free of that extremely toxic exchange that happens in so many relationships.
Once you get the hang of compersion, as an emotion and not just a concept, life gets easier. You can give yourself more space to feel, give your lover more space to feel, and the happiness of others can spill over into your life. You can learn from others how to be happy. You don't need to keep up with the Jones's (and you probably would not want to). After a while, you can start to feel what love is like when you subtract the competition and guilt. Why don't you need guilt? Well, because whatever you feel is okay. Then after a while, what you need is okay. Then, what you do is okay -- it has nothing to do with the love you feel for your partner.
From the Idea to the Reality

Many people think that compersion is a great idea -- but the reality of it eludes them. (This is how I feel about monogamy.) Compersion is not intellectual; ultimately it is emotional. (The same is true for honest monogamy.) It is brave because it involves letting go. You can't resist feeling and also experience compersion -- you need to go all the way into actually feeling. In our digitized minds, where we want everything and everyone to work by magical remote control, that is allegedly pretty brave.
Note that we tend to have unworkable sexual boundaries. We don't know how to feel erotic or experience someone as erotic without either pouncing or panicking. We assume that if we get turned on, we're going to spin wildly out of control; so we tend to suppress the feeling. We need other options, such as being able to empathize with anyone's eroticism and coexist with it for a while -- without taking charge, taking possession, or rejecting the person because we're not entitled to have them.
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Photo by Eric Francis for Book of Blue.
Compersion is brave because of homophobia. If you're a man and you want to experience compersion, you have to get used to the fact that there may be another cock and balls in the picture, at least in fantasy, which you may not appreciate too much. The same could be said in other ways for women. Remember that in our society, there was a time when you would get a break off of your jail term if you attacked someone while your lover was fucking them -- the proverbial "crime of passion." Of course you stabbed the person -- you couldn't help yourself!
Compersion is also brave because of the extreme shortage of self-esteem we experience at this point of history -- which is an epidemic that most of us suffer from to one degree or another. So one of the precursors of exploring compersion is consciously honoring the loyalty and friendship underneath the love-affair level of a relationship. It is getting an understanding of why someone has you in their life at all. Unfortunately, that quality is very often lacking. You may not feel your relationship is strong enough to withstand the truth, but you also may not feel like you have any choice except to be there. If this is true, you may need to reconsider where you are and who you are with.
As for how to learn. Most of my technique involves sharing masturbation and fantasy with your exclusive partner. This may seem like a baby step compared to having other people involved, but most of the deeper growth work can be done one-on-one. You do it by being extremely honest and then directing that honesty into witnessing one another masturbate.
After a while, you can bring in other people. If there already is someone else, most of these ideas will apply. If you are single, I'll have some ideas at the end of this section.
Compersion starts with telling the truth to your partner about all things erotic. This may be difficult, but it gets easier as you practice and build confidence. It's also a great way to find out if you're with the right person. In this process, you may notice that one person or the other is more open to the idea of their partner's extracurricular fantasies, history or activities. Work in that direction first; this watery experience is a good time to take the path of least resistance.
You begin with an agreement of amnesty. Whatever comes up in these exercises is OK. Whatever comes out will not be held against the other. If someone abuses their partner's honesty, it's their karma. You agree to hold space for whatever your partner may feel, but mostly you grant yourself and one another the freedom to feel it. This is a lot of the process; as you will discover, much of compersion involves letting go of your own guilt about pleasure.
If Partner A is turned on by Partner B's desires or fantasies, then Partner B does the talking first, describing what they want, what they think about and what they may have done -- including the details, and including how good it felt. Partner B answers all questions, embellishes any way Partner A wants, and basically both people indulge in the pleasure of this. Note this is guilt free pleasure. Much of compersion involves letting go of monogamous guilt.

Partner B may want to have sex with the entire wrestling team and partner A is having a great time hearing about it. Partner B is having a great time being free.
Partner A is probably going to get pretty horny -- and in this little game, he or she masturbates to the fantasies of the other -- I emphatically suggest that you don't have sex. Rather, the idea is to keep some sense of separation, aware of the independence of your experiences, and appreciating one another from a little distance.
Now let's say that when you reverse the roles, Partner B gets jealous when he/she hears about what Partner A wants. Go slowly, go gently, and feel for the opening. Partner B already had a positive reaction from Partner A, so they have an example to follow; they know it's probably safe.
When dealing with resistance in any form, let the fear have a voice. Let the fear speak first, and don't moralize it out of existence -- it will be more cooperative if it knows you're listening. Be aware that it is fear. This is an opportunity to be reassuring. If someone goes into a panic, you are getting a look at the dynamics which underlie your relationship. Make sure you see them for what they are.
It's not about sex. It's about Self
Photo by Eric Francis.
After a while, with some practice, you may find that the energy can flow in both directions, but don't push. Keep taking the path of least resistance. Notice your own inner resistance. If your lover wants to fuck the hottie who works at the sushi bar downstairs and this threatens you, notice the feeling of the jealousy, give it a voice, and question whether you really need to feel that way. Then go a shade deeper. Note, this is about going deeper; it won't work if you or your partner loves being superficial.
Notice what you go through. If, for example, you feel inadequate when your partner is describing a desire that does not involve you, notice that. Then maybe ask: does it make a difference if s/he keeps that secret? Does that secrecy really make me feel better about yourself, or does it just serve to conceal my insecurity? Usually people keep quiet about their truth so they won't threaten their partner's ego.

In summary, I am proposing that partners get off to one another's fantasies and desires. I suggest that you be very, very open about this -- and that you spend a lot of time masturbating together. Not some time, a LOT of time -- like half of all the sex you have, or more. Compersion is a skill, and the way you learn it is to expand your idea and experience of masturbation, including every level -- fantasy, desire, the past, all of it. This has more than a mental effect; I believe the real effect is neurological. Compersion is a space you hold open, and the easiest way to do that is by psychically and emotionally embracing your partner's self-given pleasure.
At the risk of sounding like a Jesus freak, trust me -- this may be more fun than you thought sex could ever be. Owning your whole erotic truth in the presence of your partner is extremely liberating; and it's a very big step for most. It's easier to take than you may think. Once the truth is out, and once both partners feel some safety being who they really are, a new depth of love can take over. It will make your sex better, and help you love your lover more. Most of all you actually get to be yourself, and let your partner be who they are. This is the true reward.
With the help of email, you can keep the energy of these discussions going around the clock, taking them any number of places. After a while, you might start to wonder how you could have ever been jealous in the first place. Anything that turns your partner on turns you on. Once you get to this space, then you can try something else, perhaps something that might sound incredibly daring. For example, you can invite a friend, or someone you meet specifically for this purpose, to watch you have sex, and hear about their experience of compersion.
Having other partners or three-way sex is tricky for many reasons, but if you get to this depth of communication, you have several key skills that make it possible -- the first one being honesty about how you feel. The big step is living with your partner's emotional truth -- not the physical sex. I suggest that early experiences with other partners or bringing a third person into a couple all involve sharing masturbation, rather than contact sex. It's safer, less emotionally threatening, and the boundaries are easier to see. You probably already know people who would be open to this without a lot of persuasion.
If you are single, you have nothing but opportunities for compersion, starting with yourself. When solo masturbation is good, I think the reason is that we're feeling compersion for ourselves: the total embrace of what we need and want; of our pain; of any and all feelings. Work or play with a mirror. Do it over and over and over until you start to make friends with that mysterious person looking back at you.
If there is someone you like, you can do the usual thing and explore fantasies of possessing them for yourself -- or you can be braver and imagine them being fulfilled by someone else, someone they choose and love. Here, you would be reversing the usual process of jealousy and competition and embracing the other person's whole sexual reality.
This is what we do anyway when we read or look at erotica -- we are getting pleasure from the pleasure of others.
If you are single and want companionship, pay attention for people who you can exchange ideas about masturbation and fantasy with. Look closely and see which of your friendships might have the flexibility for some erotic content. If friends reject you, try finding new friends and explore a gray area where you're not lovers, but can be deeply empathic of one another's sexual feelings. Declare your home a free zone for erotic honesty. Weave a community of conscience around what you need -- other people need it to.
Note, you will need to OPEN UP in order to do this. That is the whole point of relating, is it not? If you can't find people to explore with in person, use Craig's List or some other personals service and look for people to correspond with. Let the involvement stay on this level -- what you might call mutual independent relationship.
I have a theory, and I'm eager to try it on society. I believe we can ease a lot of the stifling sexual tension we live with by recognizing and moreover appreciating one another as independent erotic beings. We need to recognize that everyone has an erotic realty, and love that reality -- without necessarily needing to take over or mixing energies all the way. Compersion is about appreciating, recognizing, identifying, feeling, witnessing and loving -- all from a little distance, and most of all respecting everyone's autonomy of feeling. It's a fine way to live. It eases the pain of isolation and points the way to unusual and deeply nourishing emotional and erotic pleasures. The only catch, and it's a big one, is you need the willingness to be free.

Eric Francis