[This post is directed toward dedicated, rigorous and skillful contemplatives who happen to live in committed relationship, and is not intended to assert that such a life is superior to the single life. I bow to those of you who are on your own, as this form of life carries with it different sets of advantages and challenges. No offense is intended to anyone, anywhere!]
Having spent the requisite time meditating in this life (and most likely in previous lives, as well), such that the signs of absorption have arisen and we are now saturated in bliss, joy and ecstasy throughout every day and night….
…What is the best way to live amongst those who are dominated by dukkha?
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think to myself, “Boy, it would be a lot easier to just live alone in a cave somewhere.”
I just want to be left alone to remain connected with the pleasant sensations, comforting inner sounds and unattached emotions that arise from my practice — is that so much to ask?
No sooner do I entertain these notions, however, than I remember how valuable relationships can be along the Path.
If my practice had already resulted in Nibbana, is it likely that I would continue to experience emotional reactivity when exposed to suffering (or joy, for that matter) in others?
If my practice had already resulted in Nibbana, would my relationships still be mirroring back to me so many unfortunate character flaws? (They are in there, trust me….)
Having arrived at these insights, I realize further that relationship can be a boon to the contemplative, provided that one’s partner is supportive of the fact that meditation, dhamma study and near-constant mindfulness are by far the most valued components of the contemplative’s existence. If we are fortunate enough to have ended up with such a supportive person, even if that person has not committed himself or herself to a Calling such as ours, it is possible to use the pain and suffering inherent in relationship to propel us along the Path.
I see my marriage relationship as a long-term experiment. It goes something like this:
Michael, due to a dedicated, rigorous and skillful meditation practice that has born the fruit of absorption and saturation, experiences peace, bliss, joy and ecstasy that are self-arising, non-dependent on any external stimulus. In relationship, however, he encounters all sorts of pain and suffering — much of it lingering within him, products of kamma from a wild earlier life, a strict religious upbringing and unknown influences from this and other lives — perfectly mirrored in the pain and suffering that his presence triggers in his wife. Can he use this mirroring as an aid to jhana’s natural process of removing blockages to enlightenment?
For me, the lesson of this experiment is that the third leg of my practice — mindfulness — must not be neglected.
The fact is, my job in relationship is to become constantly aware of what is going on inside of me. How am I reacting to this person’s expressions of pain and suffering? How am I reacting to this person’s expressions of love and affection? How am I reacting to the inevitable projections onto me? Am I taking them personally? Are they pissing me off? If so, am I attached to a role here? Am I identified with what’s going on? Am I clinging to this painful interaction?
I’m not even saying that anger or other emotional reactions are “bad” or negative. I am, however, insisting that the real work in relationship has nothing to do with the other person. It has everything to do with what’s going on inside of me.
The modern Catholic mystic Anthony de Mello (who lived and taught in India) put it like this (from his book Awareness, page 51):
Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you. You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? “He is to blame, she is to blame. She’s got to change.” No! The world’s all right. The one who has to change is you.
Hard words, perhaps, but the sentiment applies to our discussion here.
The challenge is not to avoid relationship (unless it truly prevents the contemplative from a full and fruitful practice, in which case a change must be made), but to use relationship as an opportunity for exposing those aspects of our being that need to shift… so that the beautiful deconditioning wrought by meditative absorption is able to advance in accordance with our heightened awareness.