Relationship as a Spiritual Crucible
spiritual crucible

INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP AS A SPIRITUAL CRUCIBLE

JOHN WELWOOD

 

While most people would like healthy, satisfying relationships in their lives, the truth is that everyone has a hard time with intimate partnerships. The poet Rilke understood just how challenging they could be when he penned his classic statement, “For one person to love another, this is the most difficult of all our tasks.” Rilke isn’t suggesting it’s hard to love or to have lovingkindness. Rather, he is speaking about how hard it is tokeep loving someone we live with, day by day, year after year. After numerous hardships and failures, many people have given up on intimate relationship, regarding the relational terrain as so fraught with romantic illusion and emotional hazards as to be no longer worth the energy.

Although modern relationships are particularly challenging, their very difficulty also presents a special arena for personal and spiritual growth. To develop more conscious relationships requires becoming conversant with how three different dimensions of human existence play out within them: ego, person, and being. Every close relationship involves these three levels of interaction that two partners cycle through— ego to ego, person to person, and being to being. While one moment two people may be connecting being-to-being in pure openness, the next moment their two egos may fall into deadly combat. When our partners treat us nicely, we open—“Ah, you’re so great.”  But when they say or do something threatening, it’s “How did I wind up with you?” Since it can be terribly confusing or devastating when the love of our life suddenly turns into our deadliest enemy, it’s important to hold a larger vision that allows us to understand what is happening here.

RELATIONSHIP AS ALCHEMY

When we fall in love, this usually ushers in a special period with its own distinctive glow and magic. Glimpsing another person’s beauty and feeling our heart opening in response provides a taste of absolute love, a pure blend of openness and warmth. This being-to-being connection reveals pure gold at the heart of our nature — qualities like beauty, delight, awe, deep passion and kindness, generosity, tenderness, and joy.

Yet opening to another also flushes to the surface all kinds of conditioned patterns and obstacles that tend to shut this down: our deepest wounds, our grasping and desperation, our worst fears, our mistrust, our rawest emotional trigger points. As a relationship develops, we find that we don’t have full access to the gold of our nature, for it remains embedded in the iron ore of our conditioned patterns. And so we continually fall from grace.

It’s important to recognize that all the emotional and psychological wounding we carry with us from the past is relational in nature: It has to do with not feeling fully loved. And it happened in our earliest relationships—with our caretakers— when our brain and body were totally soft and impressionable. As a result, the ego’s relational patterns have largely developed as protection schemes to insulate us from the vulnerable openness that love entails. In relationship the ego acts as a survival mechanism for getting needs met while fending off the threat of being hurt, manipulated, controlled, rejected, or abandoned in ways we were as a child. This is normal and totally understandable. Yet if it’s the main tenor of a relationship, it keeps us locked into complex strategies of defensiveness and control that undermine the possibility of deeper connection.

Thus to gain greater access to the gold of our nature in relationship, a certain alchemy is required: the refining of our conditioned defensive patterns. The good news is that this alchemy generatedbetween two people also furthers a larger alchemy within them. The opportunity here is to join and integrate the twin poles of human existence:  heaven, the vast space of perfect, unconditional openness, and earth, our imperfect, limited human form, shaped by worldly causes and conditions. As the defensive/controlling ego cooks and melts down in the heat of love’s influence, a beautiful evolutionary development starts to   emerge — the genuine person, who embodies a quality of very human relational presence that is transparent to open-hearted being, right in the midst of the dense confines of worldly conditioning.

RELATIONSHIP AS CHARNEL GROUND

To clarify the workings of this alchemy, a more gritty metaphor is useful, one that comes from the tantric traditions: relationship as  charnel ground. In traditional Asian society, the charnel ground was where people would bring dead bodies, to be eaten by vultures and jackals. From the tantric yogi’s perspective, this was an ideal place to practice, because it is right at the crossroads of life, where birth and death, fear and fearlessness, impermanence and awakening unfold right next to each other. Some things are dying and decaying, others are feeding and being fed, while others are being born out of the decay. The charnel ground is an ideal place to practice because it is right at the crossroads of life, where one cannot help but feel the rawness of   human existence.

Sooner or later relationship inevitably brings us to our knees, forcing us to confront the raw and rugged mess of our mental and emotional life. George Orwell points to this devastating quality of human love in a sentence that also has a charnel ground flavor to it: “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, and that one is prepared in the end, to be defeated, and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”

This then is the meaning of the charnel ground: We have to be willing to come apart at the seams, to be dismantled, to let our old ego structures fall apart before we can begin to embody sparks of the essential perfection at the core of our nature. To evolve spiritually, we have to allow these unworked, hidden, messy parts of ourselves to come to the surface. It’s not that the strategic, controlling ego is something bad or some unnecessary, horrible mistake. Rather, it provides the indispensable grist that makes alchemical transformation possible.

This is not a pessimistic view, because some kind of breakdown is usually necessary before any significant breakthrough—into new ways of living not so encumbered by past conditioning. Charnel ground, then, is a metaphor for this breakdown/breakthrough process that is an essential part of  human growth and evolution.

One of the gifts of a deep intimate connection is that it naturally sets this process in motion. Yet no one wants to be dismantled. So there are two main ways that people try to abort this process: running away and spiritual bypassing.

The problem with running away when a relationship becomes difficult is that it’s also turning away from ourselves and our potential breakthroughs. Fleeing the raw, wounded places in ourselves because we don’t think we can handle them is a form of self-rejection and self-abandonment that turns our feeling body into an abandoned, haunted house. The more we flee our shadowy places, the more they fester in the dark, and the more haunted this house becomes. And the more haunted it becomes, the more it terrifies us. This is a vicious circle that keeps us cut off from and afraid of ourselves.

One of the scariest places we encounter in relationship is a deep inner sense of unlove, where we don’t know we’re truly lovable just for being who we are, where we feel deficient and don’t know our value. This is the raw wound of the heart, where we’re disconnected from our true nature, our inner perfection. Naturally we want to do everything we can to avoid this place, fix it, or neutralize it, so we’ll never have to experience such pain again.

A second way to flee from the challenges of relationship is through spiritual bypassing— using spiritual ideas or practices to avoid or prematurely transcend relative human needs, feelings, personal issues, and developmental tasks. For example, a certain segment of the contemporary spiritual scene has become infected with a facile brand of “advaita-speak” — a one-sided transcendentalism that uses nondual terms and ideas to bypass the challenging work of alchemical transformation.

RELATIONSHIP AS KOAN

Relating to the full spectrum of our experience in the relational charnel ground leads to a self-acceptance that expands our capacity to embrace and accept others as well.  Usually our view of our partners is colored by what they do for us— how they make us look or feel good, or not—and shaped by our internal movie about what we want them to be. This of course makes it hard to see them for who they are in their own right.

Beyond our movie of the other is a much larger field of personal and spiritual possibilities— what Walt Whitman referred to when he said, “ I contain multitudes.” These “multitudes” are what keep a relationship fresh and interesting. But they can only nourish a relationship if we can accept the ways those we love are different from us— in their background, values, perspectives, qualities, sensitivities, preferences, ways of doing things, and finally their destiny. In the words of Swami Prajnanpad, standing advaita-speak on its head: “To see fully that the other is not you is the way to realizing oneness… Nothing is separate, everything is different …Love is the appreciation of difference.”

Two partners not holding themselves separate, while remaining totally distinct — “not two, not one”— may seem like an impossible challenge in a relationship. Bernard Phillips, an early student of East/West psychology, likens this impossibility of relationship to a Zen koan— a riddle that cannot be solved with the conceptual mind.

In relationship, it is two partner’s greater beings, gradually freeing themselves from the prison of conditioned patterns, that bring about this decisive defeat. And as this starts reverberating through their relationship, old expectations finally give way, old movies stop running, and a much larger acceptance than they believed possible can start opening up between them. As they become willing to face and embrace whatever stands between them— old relational wounds from the past, personal pathologies, difficulties hearing and understanding each other, different values and sensitivities— all in the name of loving and letting be, they are invited to “enter into reality.” Then it becomes possible to start encountering each other nakedly, in the open field of nowness, fresh and unfabricated, the field of love forever vibrating with unimagined possibilities.

 

Written by John Welwood

http://www.johnwelwood.com

 

For More Inspiration on Creating a Conscious Relationship, Check out my Conscious Love 101-Free Online Course.

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