Relationship as a Spiritual Path

There are many paths to integration — that state of wholeness and balance culminating in a life well lived.  As this week’s guest blogger discovered, one of the more significant ways to spiritual growth is through intimate relationship.  Here is her story.

Everything Will Be All Right

Within the past year I began a romantic relationship after eight years of being single.  It’s a huge change.  Like going from black and white to colour — complex, intense, alive, joyful, challenging and not where I thought my spiritual path would take me.

As a practicing Buddhist I believed being single would free me to meditate without distraction.  Briefly I considered ordaining as a Buddhist nun.  The Buddhist teachings seem to encourage serious practitioners to give up intimate relationships — and the householder life generally.  The Buddha himself stole away from his family in the middle of the night, leaving behind his wife and newborn son, as well as his worldly duties as son of a warrior king.  Thus freed, he pursued his destiny as a wandering sage whose teachings continue to enlighten humanity.  For 2,500 years millions worldwide followed the Buddha’s example.  Up until the 1950s, monks and nuns made up a quarter of the population of Tibet.

But Canada is not Tibet.  Buddhist monasteries here are rare.  Monasteries accommodating nuns are even rarer.  Thus, monastic life wasn’t a workable option for me.  Yet I felt drawn to a quiet life, a life of contemplation, of meditation.  I couldn’t quit my job to practise dharma full time, but I could simplify my life by staying single.  Partners can be demanding, I reasoned.  They take up a lot of time, energy, and space.  A relationship with a human being gets in the way of a relationship with the Divine.  Or so I thought.

The first year being single was pretty sweet.  I basked in the freedom to do exactly what I wanted with my free time.  I practised meditation with enthusiasm.  I savoured my periods of solitude.  I felt relief at not having to expend energy on avoiding conflict, on negotiation.  I could eat dinner at whatever time I wanted.  The choice of what pictures to put up on the walls was solely mine.  And I never had to hear the four little words I feared most —  “We have to talk.”

Under those ideal conditions you’d think I attained some kind of lasting nirvana.  I did not.  To my dismay I was unable to stop the mind from obsessing about relationships.  I felt the strong pull of attraction and resisted, only to have it come roaring back with greater strength.  I had not seen it coming, this onrush of desire in middle age.  I liken it to an underground peat fire that can smoulder unseen for months, years, even centuries before severe drought brings a conflagration to the surface.   My relationship drought apparently fuelled a fire unbeknownst to me.

Even in periods when desire was quiet, the general experience of singleness wore me down.  When difficulties arose, there was often no one immediately present on which to lean.  When celebrations took place, there was often no one readily available to share them.  Having no family nearby, naming a next of kin at the medical clinic was awkward. If I were to disappear while on one of my solitary wilderness adventures, it could take days for anyone to notice I was gone.  While all these issues could be managed through the careful cultivation of friendships and networks of support, this took a great deal of energy.

And even if all the above proved manageable, something was still bothering me at a core.  No human being out there was thinking about me every day.  I began to wonder if this quality — of knowing one is first in someone’s thoughts, of knowing that one is the object of someone’s loving attention — is a basic need, like food, water, shelter, and medicine.  Or is this just ego attachment?  Like the philosophical question of the tree falling in the forest — if no one is thinking about me, do I exist?  I recall once being in the forest and feeling a rush of love for the wild creatures surrounding me but this was followed by an unsettling thought.  I love the universe, but does the universe love me back?

For years I was guided by the idea that if I take care of myself, everything gets taken care of properly.  If I truly love myself, love flows freely.

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more
deserving of your love and affection than your are yourself, and that
person is not to be found anywhere.  You yourself, as much as anybody
in the entire universe, deserve your love and
 affection.      Buddha

I thought I didn’t have to depend on a particular person to “give” me love and only a universal and unconditional love for all beings was authentic.  But my own experience led me to see the truth is more nuanced.  It seems love is both universal and particular.  Moreover, avoiding the possibility of an intimate relationship with another was not the most loving thing to do to myself.

There are many ways for a person to live and love — singly, as a couple, as friends, as family, as part of an intentional community.  There is no right form that applies to everyone.  But there is a right way for everyone seeking lasting happiness.  The Buddha had a lot to say about right way.  He boiled it down to this:  “Avoid harm.  Do good.  Purify the mind.”  This is what it means to me to follow a path with heart.

Even after letting go of the idea I had to be single to practise the right way, I doubted anyone in the entire universe would be a suitable partner for me.  Without much faith, I opened the gates — figuratively speaking — and started welcoming visitors.  My initial experiences confirmed my doubts.  But after several months and a few false starts, the stars suddenly aligned and I met a woman whom I believe was heaven-sent.

Over the course of the last nine months my life changed completely.  For one, I find myself filling my pent-up demand for experiences that weren’t possible when I was single.  Eventually, I know, the fun and novelty will die down and what will remain is the path with heart:  Avoid harm.  Do good.  Purify the mind.   I add one other prescription:  Keep the faith.  What flows from following the right way — the heart — will be all right, even when things seem to be wrong.  To quote from the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be all right in the end.  If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”

— Nelle Oosterom

In your relationships with loved one, what one act can you take to avoid harm, to do good, to purify your mind,  to keep the faith?