Enlightened and Enlightening Relationships

Michael McAlister Blog 2 Comments

This is a reposting of an excerpt from the book, Awake in This Life, entitled “Relationships.” It was first posted in May, 2008.

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Among the richest areas for practice is relationship. Many of us, whether we are in a committed relationship or not, tend to have our connections with people inform most if not all of what we do. Romantic relationships, work relationships, as well as friendships and family relationships, can pull us from a Big Self expanse back into a small self contraction with amazing speed. They can also open us in the other direction if we know how to let them help us evolve into deeper levels of consciousness.

In a broader sense, the tendency for relationships with people and with other things to dominate our consciousness reflects the fact that there is nothing other than relationship in our experience. Relationships are things. All “things”—from thoughts, to material objects, to interactions with partners and other people—are interdependent. Therefore, our relationships are examples of our deep connection with all aspects of the Universe. Consider how anything we might come across in our experience, be it a material object, an opinion, a feeling, a judgment, a memory, or a plan, is born out of Emptiness. All things arise out of this stillness and are given meaning when our minds attach to them in some way. The mind may like what is arising, or it may hate it. Regardless, at this meeting of mind and object we have what Buddhists refer to as “birth.” This birth is not only the birth of a thing; it is also a birth of our relationship with this thing. The big question at this point for any of us on the Path is: “What will inform our relationship to this new birth, arising in our Awareness?” Will our relationship be informed by wisdom and thus become an expression of compassion? Or will our relationship be informed by grasping and thus become an expression of greed?

It is critical to remember that not one thing in this Universe acts in isolation from anything else. All things exist interdependently. Furthermore, things are always temporary. Relationships are born, and, like everything else, will die at some point. This is because death always awaits everything that is ever born. Moreover, all things have the Infinite as their core nature. When we recognize that all things, once again, are interdependent, temporary, and yet Infinite at their core, we see that all relationships are interesting ways of studying ourselves since they offer our egos so much in the way of attachment.

For example, we often want our relationships to be free from outside influences and to be permanent, even though this goes against the most basic laws of the Universe. Still the ego tries its hardest to stave off the eventual entropy that all things must face. I can recall the first time I met my wife. At the time, I was involved with someone and not very happy with how things were going, yet I wasn’t looking to get out of my current situation. But after only a few minutes of conversation with my wife-to-be, I realized that something powerful had happened. She satisfied each part of my checklist: she had a great sense of humor; she was brilliant; she didn’t have any chemical dependency issues; she liked the ocean; and it didn’t hurt that she was so gorgeous that I stumbled over my words. Most importantly, I discovered that she was clear about the fact that all of our time in this life is borrowed. This fact, she said, “makes kindness key.” After six weeks of dating, I asked her to marry me, and she agreed. But in our discussions of what our partnership meant, we have both grown to accept the fact that as much as we love, admire, and respect each other, our relationship, like all other things, will eventually end. One of us might die, or the relationship might, for some reason, no longer be able to sustain itself. We also know that the relationship’s sustainability depends on what both of us do and don’t do. And finally, in our wedding vows, we agreed to protect each other’s solitude so that the Infinite might continually support the conscious expression of our love—even when I leave the toilet seat up, and she leaves her clothes in a heap on the floor.

In our most intimate relationships, we discover that feelings of love affect us on both the physical and the psychological levels. This means that love always carries a tremendous amount of weight in our consciousness. During sexual intimacy, for example, all of us are given an opportunity to get brief glimpses of a deep, formless, empty, and nondual union with another being—a union that reminds us that there is depth and unspeakable beauty beyond the confines of the physical nature of the small self. We go from separation to union, and in the process of our conscious sexual expression, our small self awareness can yield to something much more expansive. But these experiences, like all other things, are only fleeting reminders. Repeating the physical process in order to establish some kind of permanent, ecstatic grace only brings temporary relief from the basic unease of being separate.

On the psychological plane, love can similarly work to mask our pain by creating powerful distractions. This masking process is typical and may appear normal to most people, but in order to cultivate an enlightened relationship with another person, we must be careful to watch ego’s dance in this realm. A connection rooted in “romantic love” is based on the dualism and separation inherent in attachment. Rather than sourcing our behavior from a deeply unified sense of Awareness, the dualism of lover-and-beloved arises and suddenly, “I am here, and I want that person over there.” In this psychological container of separation the only place for a relationship to evolve is into a perpetual state of negotiation between two entities tied to their senses of separation. In this space, we are always in a contracted, defensive, and unenlightened state, giving only if there can be some form of getting in return. After some period of time the intoxicating, initial bliss of romantic love eventually wears off. This fading of romantic love will forever be the case, since this circumstance, like all others, is born as an experience in time, which means that it is always fundamentally temporary.

Intimate relationships are continually challenged by this fact: initially they give us a glimpse of the Infinite’s shine, only to give way to the fog of what appear to be diminishing returns. The speed with which this can happen can shock and amaze us. Seemingly without warning, “Things aren’t like they were when we first met,” and because of this sense of lack, “the thrill is gone.” With the thrill gone, what’s the use of pursuing the relationship any further? Of course, maybe things can be salvaged, but often couples stay together only because they are able to distract themselves through shared activities involving their kids, or because they give each other overt amounts of “space” where intimacy dies or takes on superficial meaning.

This unfortunate situation is one that many of us have experienced. Sadly, any relationship rooted in attachment will eventually become heavy for us, and its weight hinders the expression of the love that we initially may have felt. The psychological and physical energy that used to arise with our loved one’s presence now gets drained from us. It is as if we are riding on a wildly spinning merry-go-round where our emotions violently toss us up, down, and around so that we soon find ourselves exhausted from the ride, unable to even reach for the brass ring. Other aspects of our lives suffer because so much of our time is spent trying to remain stable in the midst of all the instability. Our friends don’t like being around us because we throw our emotional baggage around mindlessly. And yet despite all of the misery, the ego is at home and in charge as long as its sense of pleasure is either enhanced or threatened. This is exactly why the ego craves romantic love. With all of its endless supplies of pleasure and pain, the negotiations surrounding romantic love guarantee that the ego gets to call the shots.

The good news is that there is a way off of this not-so-merry “ego”-go-round. What’s more, getting off this ride doesn’t mean that we can’t have romance in our lives. In fact, the essence of romance shows up whenever we consciously ground our relationship in the recognition of what is Infinite in ourselves and our partners. This Infinite, or Ultimate, Love is compassion, and it is something that we can cultivate once we learn to stop judging ourselves and our partners. Compassion is born in ourselves and others in this non-judgmental space. Letting go of judgment always creates room for an expansive, all-inclusive love to reveal itself in our experience. There is no merry-go-round to ride in this openness since this sacred version love comes from the spaciousness beyond any greed or aversion.

Accepting yourself and your partner totally and then acting only from that place of deep surrender supports compassion and the felt sense of this opening is experienced as a type of love that is never limited by egoic negotiation. Living this compassion doesn’t mean, however, that we should do whatever the other person wants at the expense of our own sense of peace. Denying our desire is merely an attachment to not being intimate with either ourselves or our partners. Instead, the work for each of us is to consciously meet our partners in each circumstance that arises and to be ready to dance: resisting when conscious resistance is an expression of generosity, and pulling him or her toward us when a doing so is a conscious expression of generosity. Without a conscious push and pull, there can be no spin. Without any spin, the beauty of our dance diminishes. On the other hand, once conscious exchanges of generosity occur, a divine version of the tango is expressed for you both to enjoy. Of course, this dance is shared at different levels of intensity with different people in our lives, but ultimately we can love and dance with all beings in just this way. With practice, it is possible to truly see and accept each being that comes into our experience exactly as that being is in this space and time, and so carry on and celebrate the sacred dance of compassion.

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