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March 30, 2023

The Problem with Zen Boyfriends

by Mariana Caplan

[adapted from Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path©, Sounds True, 2009]

Some things just don’t want to die. Much to my surprise, a little piece I published over 10 years ago, about a certain type of spiritual guy I found myself dating in my early twenties, set alight a dormant flame throughout the world. Originally published in the anthology “Radical Spirit,” “Zen Boyfriends” was rapidly translated into multiple languages, and I soon learned that Zen boyfriends were found in Italy, Spain, France and even communities in Thailand and other parts of Asia.

More years on the path brought more Zen boyfriends and infinite variations on the theme, not only for myself but from my clients and from readers and seekers everywhere. “Zen Boyfriends” eventually resurrected itself as a musical produced by Oregon musician Mark Steighner, and it was finally updated and reproduced in the San Francisco Bay area by me, with musician Anastasi Mavrides and actress Suraya Keating, to sold out audiences. I hope you enjoy the snippets from the original writing and revised theater production, and please share your stories!


At a certain stage in my own spiritual development, I began to attract a new breed of men that over time I came to call “Zen boyfriends.” I use the term “Zen” loosely here, because a man doesn’t have to be a Zen Buddhist to fall into this category. He could be a Tibetan Buddhist, a Sufi, or even a practitioner of some obscure brand of yoga. The more rigid the tradition, the better for this type. What defines a Zen boyfriend is the manner in which he skillfully uses spiritual ideals and practices as an excuse for his terror of, and refusal to be in, any type of real relationship with a woman. He is both too identified with his balls to become a celibate monk, and at the same time too little identified with the wider implications of them to take responsibility for them. The result: a righteous, distant and very intelligent substitute for a real man.

Andrew was a great example of a Zen boyfriend. This is how a typical morning went in our love nest:

At 4:30 a.m. his alarm sounds. “Andrew, your alarm is going off.”

“Press the snooze.”

I oblige. Then at 4:38 it goes off again. “Andrew, get up!”

“I’m too tired.”

By the fourth snooze I was wide awake, while he dozed away like a baby in arms. When he’d finally open his eyes sometime around 5:30, I was undeniably and un-spiritually pissed off. Without even a word or a glance in my direction, he would roll out of bed and head for the bathroom. I would listen with mounting rage as he gargled his Chinese herbs, did an hour of tai chi on the creaky hardwood floor, and then adjusted himself on his zafu to meditate. Often I would get up and meditate as well, but since I didn’t practice the same form of meditation as he did, he said we couldn’t practice together. The argument was always the same:

“Why do you set your alarm if you’re not going to get up?”

“It’s important to hold the intention to get up early. The energy for meditation is strongest between three and five in the morning.”

“If it’s so strong then why don’t you just do it?”

And then: “Andrew, it would make a big difference to me if you would at least say ‘good morning’ when you get up.”

“I want my meditation to be consistent with the delta waves that are activated during sleep, and speech interferes with this.”

“Even two words, ‘good’ and ‘morning’?!”

“Yes, even two words.”

“How about a hug then?”

“Same thing.”

“Then why doesn’t cold water on your face or flushing the toilet screw up the delta


“This conversation is closed. I need space.”

Men need space. All women know this. But some men need two parts space for one part intimacy, or even 10 parts space for one part intimacy. But with Andrew, and other Zen boyfriends, it was more like 98 parts space to two parts intimacy.

It was lose-lose proposition with Andrew. Exactly why I wanted our relationship to work so badly in the first place is a worthy question, but I am a woman, and the more a man withdraws into himself, the more a woman chases him there to draw him out. Andrew told me that our relationship wasn’t working because I wasn’t spiritual enough. What a blow!

He complained that I wasn’t an experienced meditator and that my three short years of meditation practice didn’t enable me to understand my mind the way he understood his mind, thus rendering me incapable of a “spiritual relationship.” When he lamented that I only meditated a half-hour a day whereas he meditated for an hour, I painstakingly began to meditate for an hour. When he complained that since I studied Vipassana Buddhism instead of Zen Buddhism, I couldn’t really understand his true aim, I started reading Zen and altered my meditation. Finally, he said that even though I was starting to walk the path of Zen, that his teacher taught in a very particular way that was distinct from other schools of Zen. But when I told him I wanted to meet his teacher, he said that I had already taken over too much of his life, and that he was entitled to keep the very thing he treasured most — his teacher — for himself, even though she taught to widespread audiences publicly throughout the world.

Our relationship ended over a winter weekend retreat at a rented condo on Lake Tahoe with his mother, when he told me that my Yin energy wasn’t a powerful enough match for his Yang energy. I should have had the foresight to realize that, for some men, especially Zen boyfriends, having their girlfriend and mother in the same house is the very thing that takes them over the edge.

Stephan was another one of these scared guys who hid behind his spirituality. We met at a narcissistic, eco-retentive, save-the-earth weekend workshop. Two days after the workshop, as I sped off the Golden Gate bridge and headed up 101 north toward my country home after a full day of seeing therapy clients, I noticed a tall man pounding on a drum while standing on top of a beaten-up VW van alongside the highway. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t be sure. I got off at the next exit, drove back down the highway, turned around again, and pulled up behind his van. Sure enough, it was Stephan. He told me that the workshop had inspired him to do a new form of political ecoprotest.

Once a week, he said, he planned to stand on his van alongside the highway and call out the list of endangered species while pounding on his drum. When I asked him what he hoped to accomplish by this, he said that he didn’t know, but that he was intuitively guided to do it. Strange as it sounds, I was impressed.

He asked me out on a date. The first night we ate vegetarian lasagna, Caesar salad and Haagen Daz by candlelight in his living room, and then rolled around his balcony for hours while Mickey Hart played on the stereo and Sausalito danced at our feet. The next morning, he told me he needed space. And in this way, our Zen relationship developed, in the small gaps between the large spaces.

Stephan eventually left for India (a spiritually disguised, intimacy escape plan I myself was to later model after), and returned a year and a half later under the spiritual name “Jivan,” looking very monk-like in his white cotton Indian garb and ivory shawl. His long hair had been cut to shoulder length and had grayed, his skin appeared to have permanently tanned, and small wrinkles marked the corners of his eyes. He said he had thought about me a lot and asked whether I would like to go out for dinner. As I was between boyfriends (again), and as he was quite handsome in his new gurulook, I agreed.

Jivan thought he had become enlightened, though he wouldn’t have dared to say as much. He had become a student of one of those Indian teachers who skillfully create mystical experiences in their groupies by momentarily cutting through their psychological blocks, and then declare them enlightened from the experience. In such a situation, the master gets a swollen head and an immense reputation for being able to enlighten people, and thousands of Western hippies who are afraid of really living life get to think that they have risen above it. They then proceed unsolicited to try to bestow the same boon upon others.

Jivan was a living example of such a situation. The first night was all right, as far as Zen boyfriends go. I enjoyed hearing of his adventures over a cappuccino, only occasionally irritated by his references to having “seen through the nature of reality” or having “become one with everything.” Of course, by early evening he needed space, but that was to be expected.

The next day, however, as we walked in Muir woods, he tried to do his spiritual number on me. To explain his spiritual approach in two sentences, nonduality is based on the tacit recognition of the oneness, or “non-separation,” of all things. It means that “I” don’t exist separately from you or any other animate or inanimate being or thing: all is one. However, there is a big difference between being able to spew these words (as I just did), and living as one who abides eternally in the truth of this reality.

“Jivan, if we are going to hang out together, I need to feel like you’re really here with me and not always so detached,” I opened the floor.

“But who is the ‘you’ who wants to hang out with the ‘me’?”

“I am the me and you are the you!”

“There is no difference, so we can never really be apart or together; it’s all the same.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“But who do you think is the ‘me’ that is full of shit?”

“I think it is you!”

“Who’s getting angry?”

“I’m getting angry.”

“Look into my eyes, what do you see?”


“Look more deeply. Now what do you see?”

“I see a lonely man who thinks he’s enlightened.”

Extremely frustrated and teary-eyed, I walked away and sat on a log by the stream trying to figure out why it was so important to me to try to get through to him.

“Why did you come all the way over here to cry?” he sat down beside me, fully believing in his own innocence.

I looked at him with that end-of-the-relationship look in my eye. “Because there is no one there to hold me if I cry, and I’d just as soon cry alone than cry with nobody.”

Several years later, I was getting changed after a strong yoga practice when I was approached by the handsome, purer-like man who had shown up at the studio and had been practicing next to me. You would have thought that by now I would have known how to spot these men from a mile away, but as the saying goes, “Neurosis is defined by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

“You have a great practice. Isn’t Ashtanga cool? You get to work all the limbs of yoga and go really deep. Have you ever been to India to study yoga in Mysore? I lived there for six months,” he approached me, beads of sweat dripping from his curly, Mediterranean locks. “I’m Jake.”

“I’ve been to India for years but not to Mysore. This year I’m going again to teach a study abroad class.”

“Oh, I’ve been meaning to go back there for years. Maybe I can come with you? Hey, would you like to come by my house tonight for a glass of wine?”

A yoga practitioner, I thought, that’s cool. I’ve never dated someone I can practice yoga with, and he drinks wine and drives a motorcycle besides. He can’t be too New Agey, I thought. He then told me that he was getting his Ph.D. in Sanskrit. A smart one — maybe I’ve struck gold. So I go over to his house and we sip organic red wine and eat Spanish olives, and we are having a wonderfully sexy time dancing by candlelight when he asks:

“Are you monogamous?”

I looked at him confused. “Did you ask if I was monogamous?”

“Yes. Are you monogamous?”

“Forgive me if I sound a little stupid or silly, but monogamous as opposed to what?”



“Polyaaaaamorous. It means that your love is not limited to one person. You love freely and unconditionally because that is your nature, but you are not limited to one person or one commitment for the rest of your life. I am polyamorous, and I am interested in having a relationship with you. For now you would be my ‘primary partner,’ but I would like the autonomy to love, or at least engage sexually with others freely and have ‘secondary’ relationships with them.”

“So let me get this straight. You’re saying that if I’m your girlfriend I have to be okay with you sleeping with other women whenever you want to? It kind of sounds like this polyamory is some fancy psycho-spiritual justification for sleeping around.”

“You don’t get it, clearly. Polyamory is for real. Maybe if you try it, you will like it. And for better or worse, if you want to have an intimate relationship with me, it’s part of the deal. Haven’t you ever heard of the bonobo monkeys?”


“The bonobos are a group of polyamorous monkeys who solve all their problems by having sex with each other. It’s a matriarchal society. You’re a woman. You should like that.”

He can’t be for real, I thought. He probably just hasn’t found the right woman. If he loves me enough, he’ll snap out of it. I dismissed it from my mind, we spent a couple of months falling madly in love, and we were on our way home from our first romantic weekend getaway when he said to me:

“My lover from Spain is moving here to be with me for six months. She is going to be my primary partner now, but I am open to you being my secondary relationship.”

“What?!? Are you for real?! I thought we were just starting to fall in love?”

“We were. I mean, we are. But I love her, too. I love everybody. I warned you that this was going to happen. My love is limitless and unconditional and therefore isn’t limited to you. I must listen to my heart.”

“Are you sure it is your heart talking and not your balls?”

“Are you forgetting what all the spiritual traditions tell us?”

“Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you?”

“No, not that, and besides, I would love to rejoice in your sexual union with another man.”

“That makes one of us. I need commitment to feel safe.”

“The traditions tell us that our love must be unconditional and inclusive. Buddhism teaches about sympathetic joy — learning to rejoice in the good fortune of others. In polyamory, you learn to feel ecstasy through your partner’s happiness when he or she is with another person.”

“And are you going to express sympathetic joy with my broken heart?”

And so I let him fly away to the land of the One in the form of the Many.

In this way came and went a couple more Zen boyfriends. We live in confusing times where spirituality and neurosis are often seamlessly interwoven into a complex constellation of radiant wisdom and psychological woundedness. Yet in the end, I blame not them but myself. For as distant, arrogant, righteous and terrified as they were, it was I who sought them out, I who tried to open them in the ways that I wanted them to be open, and ultimately I who recreated my childhood pattern of not feeling loved by eliciting the same response in my relationships.

At the end of the day, I ended up with a nice Jewish boy.

Mariana Caplan, PhD, has spent over two decades researching and practicing many of the world’s great mystical traditions. She is a psychotherapist, a professor of yogic and transpersonal psychologies, and the Co-Founder of The Center for World Spirituality. The author of seven books on cutting-edge topics in spirituality and psychology, including Eyes Wide Open (Sounds True, 2009), Mariana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit and

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About Mariana Caplan

Mariana Caplan, PhD, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, professor of yogic and transpersonal psychologies, and the author of seven books in the fields of psychology and spirituality, including, The Guru Question: The Perils and Awards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher (Sounds True, 2011), Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path (Sounds True, 2010), which won five national awards for best spiritual book of 2010, and the seminal Halfway Up the Mountain: the Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment.


  1. Oh – just what I needed as I grieve over my just faded out relationship with a “Zen” boyfriend. I dither over whether to try once more -but after many hearty laughs as I read this article I think – oh no, let him go!

    It’s comforting to know I’m not the only woman who meets up with a man who “needs his space” does “not believe in monogamy” – but is furious if you give him all the space he could possibly want i.e. count him out of your space.

  2. This is very endearing and funny. So interesting how this dynamic can actually go down in a 20 year marriage too.

  3. Hahhaha – met them. left them. Life is short, sometimes difficult, always engaging! Some people need to live under a rock, be coddled and reassured their fears are being taken care of when in reality they are the cowards of life. Get a life gives these guys new meaning!

    A nice Jewish boy – you grew up and realized life was its encounters! Nice.

  4. allen zeesman says:

    I love the article. As a man, I know that one of my deepest spiritual practices is to create intimacy with my partner. Thanks for this.

  5. Thanks, Mariana, for naming a pattern of behavior in such an honest, and well-storied way. Spiritual holier-than-thouism AND “YOU-JUST-DON’T-GETTISM” is, of course, not just the province of men. But you nailed the male form of escape from flesh and blood intimacy and the deepest commitment to explore and face GENDER differences beautifully while taking responsibility for your complicity. Very brave, funny, and a little sad for us all.

  6. What were they looking for? In Zen? In each other? Some intimacy with Life? Ah, seek not in the seeking and ye shall find in the be-ing.

  7. This is so great! Thank you.

  8. Lynda Silva says:

    Thank you Mariana, This wise story had me screaming! then sober with having to come to terms in acceptance of myself. Yep! and not be dependent on a Zen boyfriend. Blessings, grace have saved a many a time.

  9. Well done! Very funny!

    It was so heart warming to read your straight, tell it like it is commentary on what I call the “spiritualized ego.”

    Relationship patterns trump spiritual inclinations every time. It sure takes some doing to see through all the smoke but, it was nice to hear how you found a heart of gold without the spiritual bullshit.

    Thanks for being a highpoint in my day. Happy trails.

  10. Suzanne Arthur says:

    Loved reading this. Oh girl, does it resonate! Perfectly-timed humor, well done. You & your nice Jewish boy are two of my personal favorites in the Integral publications. Thanks for the giggles!

  11. Thomas Frankovich says:

    All barriers one may attract thru direct encounter in life are always self imposed. It is a choice. One’s ego wants to be awake; however, it also wants to witness its own destruction. To be there, with rightiousness. When one makes something right, it creates limitations in ones consciousness, where everything other than that is wrong. Stuck in the mud.

    When one has reached a certain level of awakened maturity
    there is a realization of Oneness united as One; being All that is. As such, one grocks the understanding that the real value in relating to another individual is to recognize that Love is in the Mind.

    Perhaps what you are looking for is within.

    One’s true absolute ally!

    Do not believe me… find out for oneself. Or, ask any true radical subversive nudist zen buddhist.

  12. Hi Mariana,

    Didnt the jewish boy have the same issue recently?



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