Meditative Absorption and the Value of Relationship


[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.


10 responses to “Meditative Absorption and the Value of Relationship

  1. Do all relationships involve pain & suffering? I’m not so sure of that. Some of my relationships have not produced any suffering, only happiness, although I’ve known the people for years. Others are problem after problem, until one figures out a way to control the situation or just drop the relationship.

  2. Hello roxana,

    If you’ve had relationships that “have not produced any suffering, only happiness,” I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know anyone else who can say that, nor have I ever heard of a relationship that was pure happiness.

    More power to you! 😉

    My thesis is that relationships, if they are connected at a deep and meaningful level, are (by definition) designed as a vessel through which the deepest parts of our being are prompted to arise. The mirroring is inevitably perfect. If bliss and happiness are there, that’s what gets mirrored. If dark matter is there, that’s what gets mirrored. If it’s all just bliss and happiness, I truly question whether the connection is that deep — and I suspect that the connection is based on avoidance of pain and suffering.

    Then again, you may be the sort of person who has truly worked through all her dark matter and does not attract a relationship mirror that includes pain and suffering.

    I definitely don’t claim to know everything about every relationship. And my main point, that our job within relationship is to work on ourselves regardless of what’s going on with the other person — and that jhana saturation gives us an advantage in this process… remains the same.


  3. Hi Mike,

    So…my position with relationships is the same
    as Robert Frost poem;
    “There is no life”
    ‘There is no death”
    “Only eternity and the games we play
    to keep ourselves amused”

    So…now you’ve proved your eternal with Nibbana. So…game on
    I must admit that at times I think the
    discomfort from loneliness can be removed
    by getting a good dog as a companion.
    Then visiting the brothal once in a while.
    I’m sure my significant other feels the
    same way.
    Party on,

  4. Hi Kimo,

    I love it: “Only eternity and the games we play to keep ourselves amused.”

    In the midst of all that, there is this constant saturation in meditative absorption, which beckons me inward… to maintain awareness of my participation in the games we play.

    With peace and ease,

  5. Well, Michael, after 60 years, I guess a lot of things already were dealt with. People do grow up, sometimes. I’m grateful to have finished my first childhood before the second one begins.

    I am not speaking of being married, which may have built in problems. I was married, when very young, but after he died, I never married again. I always thought I would; it just didn’t happen. I do have deep friendships of 1o-25 years, and several that date back to childhood. We have remained friends despite moving around. It’s been interesting to watch. Children have been raised, spouses have come and gone, parents have died or are now being cared for. Some did OK in life, and have enough money to retire; others are destitute. Likewise, with health issues.

    Some of my closest relationships are with people I worked with. We became friends because we were mutally supportive and worked back=to-back in a stressful, dangerous environment. I can’t think of any argument or problem that we had, in over ten years. We have all had our own life problems, with family members dying, and health problems. Tolerance makes for happy relationships. Traits that would have bothered me in a relationship when I was young, no longer bother me. I am more interested in what sort of human being they are. Maybe I don’t understand what you consider to be the ‘pain and suffering’ inherent in relationships. We all have our own yardsticks as to what constitutes misery.

  6. I’m glad you wrote back, roxana. It gives me a chance to add something that occurred to me after my first response.

    First, thanks for expanding on your thoughts — this helps me to know you better, and I do appreciate that. I’m 46 now, well into my second marriage, my third long-term “committed” relationship, and while I notice that growth/healing/letting-go has happened, there are still rough edges that require constant attention. This idea of withdrawing projections and paying attention to my own reactions, feelings, etc., has been with me for a long, long time… but, having become saturated in meditative absorption, the “going within” is much easier, and my presence in relationship has undergone what I would call a miraculous transformation just within the last couple years.

    The insight that came to me after my first response is that, it doesn’t really matter whether a relationship — any sort of relationship — is predominantly marked with pain and suffering, or with bliss and happiness. When I say “pain and suffering,” I’m not suggesting that one person is being pathologically difficult and the other person is just absorbing abuse all the time (although there are relationships that seem this way, at least on first glance). I’m saying that marriage or live-in relationships definitely are conducive to the natural up-welling of dark unconscious material, and that this stuff gets projected onto one’s partner on a fairly regular basis, usually according to the ups-and-downs of the natural emotional cycle. Triggering happens. Cycles are engaged. Roles are played.

    Within this context, we are given the opportunity to extract ourselves from programmed reactivity, such that we are able to clearly see what is “really going on,” in terms of whatever it is that comes up in our individual process. Often this is experienced as “pain and suffering.” Just as often this is experienced as sweet and rewarding… but these so-called “positive” experiences are fraught with the same tendencies toward attachment, clinging and identification as are the painful experiences, so we’re right back where we started: our job within relationship is to remain as unconditional as possible toward the other person, even as we focus our awareness on our own presence in what’s going on.

    And… the benefit of saturation in meditative absorption is apparent, in that (for me, anyway) it is much easier to detach from the immediate drama inherent in committed relationship, in order to directly experience the core of my being, and to adjust my reactivity accordingly.

    Thanks once again for sharing from your life, and for bringing the wisdom of your years to this discussion. I truly appreciate it.


  7. Hi Michael, I wanted to expand a bit on this topic, as I think the problem of whether one should pursue a spiritual life in solitude, commmunity or a relationship, is something serious pracitioners are always wrestling with. It is central to where we want our practice to take us. “Unconditional” is what I meant by ‘tolerant.’

    If we are able to stop projecting meaning where there is none, to stop having delusional views, life becomes much easier. Much of our suffering results from unrealistic expectations or fears.

    People do get into role playing–it can happen in friendships as well as romance. In the latter, I find it is easier if both parties state what they see as their ‘role’ and what they expect from the other. The roles may have to be modified some, of course. For instance, I have a relationship in which the guy clearly states he wants to play a very traditional ‘role’. I know him well, and understand why this is important to him. I felt rather amused with his long list, and just nodded, thinking, that fantasy isn’t going to last, but he’ll find that out for himself.

    I don’t care, you see, what role I play. If he derives happiness from that game, it’s OK. It makes me happy, to see him happy. Maybe that is too simple? Perhaps, there is an idea out there, that for a relationship to be deep and meaningful, there must be conflict and constant soul searching. I am just posing a subject for inquiry.

    Life is like an onion. Year after year, we think we’ve got all the layers peeled off, and then something else appears. Roxana

  8. “Perhaps, there is an idea out there, that for a relationship to be deep and meaningful, there must be conflict and constant soul searching.”

    No, this is not my idea. Especially about the constant soul searching, which is rare enough in this world. As for conflict… well, see below.

    My idea is that intimate, living-together, committed relationships are ideal vehicles for giving rise to whatever shadow material there may be.

    If that material is not there, there’s nothing to give rise to.

    On the other hand, I do wonder about anyone who tells me that they have deep, intimate, long-term, living-together relationships that are 100% positive, stress-free and devoid of conflict. If this says something significant about me and my beliefs, that’s okay with me.


  9. Great topic Michael

    I think there is obviously something to be said in all of this about the part sexual involvement plays in committed relationships, intensifying the entire spectrum of emotions, ushering in a deep sense of vulnerability which is initiatory to accessing some of the deeper aspects of the person.

  10. Stirs the pot, for sure, Craig. I see the sexual component as (among other things) the “destroyer” aspect of the kundalini, in that it renders us raw and exposed in ways that demand a level of trust and acceptance. It’s also a window into what’s really there in a given moment.

    One aspect of the sexuality issue that comes up often in the context of meditative absorption is the presence or absence of sexual desire. When one is saturated 24/7, sex is usually not on the top of the wishlist… just as most everything pales in comparison with self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy. On the other hand (as I usually insist), willingness is always available!

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