Conscious relationships: A path of transformation
When I was sixteen I fell in love with a girl at my school. Her father was from North Korea which made her exotic and special. After our first kiss I was in heaven and assumed our love would last forever. Ten weeks later she dumped me for another boy who shared the same fate a few months later. I was heart-broken and it took me years to get over it. There is maybe no other aspect of our lives that draws so much of our attention as our intimate relationships. We evolved out of mammals and primates and as sociable creatures it is natural for us to live together, we thrive on living in close community. However, living with someone brings out the best and the worst in us: the capacity to be loving, compassionate and open-hearted as well as our selfshness, coldness and meanness. What is presented to us in romantic movies is only one side of the story.
The challenge of relationships
Statistically the majority of intimate relationships don’t last. In the US 50% of couples get divorced, and if we include the ones that are not married, it rises to 70%. And one can wonder how happy the remaining 30% are. This is quite sobering. It turns out that a happy relationship doesn’t just happen by itself, it takes a lot of commitment and a willingness to look at ourselves with honesty and courage. Many couples feel a huge pressure to be happy and some even feel shame for not being able to live up to an idealised image. Older generations tell us that our expectations are too high, that marriages are not there to make us happy. But for our generation having a mediocre relationship is not good enough. We want more.
A new spirituality
Traditionally love relationships and spirituality were seen as strictly separate and exclusive of each other, where you could pursue either one or the other. When I first entered a Buddhist monastery in 1988 everybody’s goal was transcendence and enlightenment and they were to be found exclusively in the stillness and solitude of a remote monastery or cave. Human relationships were seen as burdensome, causing social entanglements and distractions from one’s ‚real‘ practice.
I remember one monk saying to me: ‚As a monk you can’t have friends, you can only have friendliness.‘ I remember how bewildered I was hearing this statement. I thought: What a sad way to live your life! Nevertheless, some years later I became a monk and each year spent several months in solitude, sometimes in a small hut in the forest, not talking to anyone for weeks. As extraordinary as these periods were for me, I soon discovered that it takes great maturity to really beneft from such solitude. Some days I experienced a paralysing sense of loneliness and isolation and it became hard for me to stay open and present. In order to dive deeply into our consciousness and let go into the unknown it is helpful to have some degree of inner stabilitiy and connectedness. For many this is, at least to an extent, provided by their relationships. Surprisingly it was in the monastery that I discovered how much I beneft from other people for my growth and healing.
Relationship as mirror
Most of us need relationships in order to get in touch with our feelings and psychological patterns. Some months after having left the monk’s life I lived with my girl-friend at the time in Taiwan. She would often press buttons in me that I had not even been aware of during my nine years as a monk. I remember one evening when we had a fight. I had managed to keep calm and reasonable until one moment I exploded. I yelled at her, slammed the door and stormed out of the house, sulking for hours. At first it shocked me to see what a bad temper I could have. In the monastery I had never raised my voice or expressed any anger. I felt like I lost it. But after some time my heart softened and I got in touch with a sadness underneath the anger that I didn’t know I had … a wounded little boy. I felt uncomfortable at first but also alive and real, like a human being.
Being fully human
Nowadays many seekers are recognising it is not wise to exclude our relationships from our spiritual practice. By doing so we deny and exclude our humanity. Traditional spirituality has done this for a long time. In the name of transcendence our human needs and feelings were devaluated and bypassed because they seemed to have no place in our concepts of spirituality. As a yogi you were not supposed to struggle with feeling insecure or longing for approval and affection.
However, we might go deeper in our meditation if every now and then we receive a warm hug from someone we love. Physical expression of affection like this triggers a feeling of security in us. Most of us thrive and blossom when we feel held and safe and to judge and suppress this need only makes it stronger. Our relationships can help us be firmly rooted in our humanity. This connectedness to our humanness is a solid foundation and support for our spiritual search where our needs for love, recognition and acceptance are welcomed and included as part of us. There is maybe no other area of our life that offers such fertile ground for inner growth as our relationships. It is here that we encounter our most intense emotions, like love, hate, jealousy and joy. It is also where we connect with inner resources like compassion, forgiveness, generosity and kindness.
Outside our comfort zone
In order to use our relationships for inner growth there needs to be a shift in our understanding what marriage and relationship really are. Rather than expecting them to make us happy, we can use them to become more conscious. Hence we relieve ourselves and our partner from the burden of having to be happy all the time. We have learned to believe that if something is uncomfortable it must be wrong. But real growth tends to happen outside of our comfort zone. Our struggle and discomfort are no signs that we are failing. However, to be willing to face ourselves the way that conscious relationships ask us to, takes a lot of commitment and integrity.
The balance of connection and freedom
When people get together there are two strong but opposite forces that get activated. One is the drive for connection and closeness; the other is for freedom and autonomy. Usually when we achieve one, we want the other. The moment we get close to intimacy we run away or do something that reestablishes distance to our partner. Once disconnected the longing for intimacy returns. This is a typical dynamic that many people experience.
Certainly during my first fifteen years of trying out intimate relationships I regularly would get thrown off balance by these two forces. Usually the roles are fixed where women want intimacy and men want space. But deep down in our hearts we all want both! Women also need space and men also want intimacy. We want meaningful and true connection and we want to be our own person and not be taken over by our partner. We want to let go of our strong boundaries and melt with our partner – and at the same time maintain our sense of autonomy, directing the course of our life. One of the most common challenges couples face is to be intimately connected with their partner and still be their own person. To find and maintain this balance is an art.
The challenge of intimacy
Most people assume that intimacy is what happens when people are naked and have sex. In my view that is not necessarily true. We all know it is possible to have sex without any degree of loving connectedness. And one can be intimate with another person without being physically close. Sometimes moments of intimacy spontaneously arise when two people drop their masks and are authentic and vulnerable with each other.
In relationships it is often women who express their wish for intimacy. And men are usually the ones who are afraid of it – and run away. But what would happen if men stopped running – and say: ‚Ok darling, here I am!‘ I believe that many women would, to their suprise, discover that they too are afraid of intimacy. We all are. Intimacy is wonderful but also scary. For the ego it is a nightmare because here it loses all that it worships. The clear boundaries of our identity begin to dissolve and often we no longer know who we are. We let go of controlling the situation and open ourselves to what arises in the moment, with no goal or plan what to do next. We simply are together and allow the other person to see us, without pretence and no sense of evaluation or judgment. In my view we all long for this kind of intimacy because we all want genuine connection. The longing for authenticity is natural to us. Deep down though many of us feel lonely because the masks we wear make sure that nobody ever sees our true face. We have even become a stranger to ourselves.
In a moment of intimacy our relationship to ourselves becomes apparent. When we love and accept ourselves as we are, intimacy is a delicious and beautiful adventure where we explore ourselves beyond our familiar boundaries. But when our sense of self-respect is fragile and shaky intimacy can feel threatening because if we allowed somebody else to really see us we would fear being judged and rejected.
It can be a big step to recognise our own fear of intimacy and to admit it to ourselves. ‚I want intimacy – and I am afraid of it.‘ When we observe ourselves closely and honestly we may discover that a lot of the time we actively avoid real communion. As one therapist once said: ‚Don’t ask yourself: Am I avoiding true relationship? But: How am I avoiding it?‘ What do we do to keep our partner at a distance? What do we do to keep love away?
Fear of love
We all want love, more love. But does it ever occur to us that we are actually afraid of love? In order to let the love in that we crave so much, our heart has to open. Once it opens not only do we feel the joy and happiness of being loved, we also feel all the sorrow and grief that is there. When we get in touch with our wounded heart many of us shut down. Sometimes people even get angry when someone loves them. Love can make us feel dependent and vulnerable, it touches us where we feel most wounded.
Relationships as business
Deep down most people suffer from a lack of ease and confidence in themselves. To the outside they might appear strong and in control but underneath the surface you often find a powerful inner critic and a strong need for affirmation and approval. So when two people enter a relationship they often make an unconscious agreement: ‚I will make you feel good as long as you do the same for me. If you make me feel like a capable, strong, competent and powerful man, I will make you feel you are the most beautiful and attractive woman in the world.‘ We unconsciously expect our partner to validate us and to give us the love and respect we are not able to give ourselves. When both partners manage to make each other feel this good, they call it love. In my view it is a state of co-dependency. Our partner’s approval and recognition becomes a crutch that we lean on. As soon as the crutch is taken away our sense of self-respect collapses. Suddenly we feel unloved, unworthy, unattractive. For some it brings out the worst in them and love turns to hate.
The power of self-acceptance
It becomes clear that the most important relationship we are ever going to have in our life is with ourselves. It is a harsh reality that even people who have had years of meditation practice, therapy and other forms of inner growth often still struggle to love and accept themselves as they are. Many seekers remain caught in the trap of endless self-improvement which is another form of self-rejection. Self-acceptance is the key to a healthy and mature intimate relationship. Of course it is wonderful and helpful to have someone who loves us and to feel supported by that. However, I find it helpful to recognise that our partner does not hold the key to our happiness in their hands. Not only does it liberate us from an imagined dependency, it also liberates our partner from the burden of having to make us happy all the time. This insight is really good news!
Loving ourselves does not mean we turn a blind eye to our shadow and darkness. Quite the contrary. It gives us the stability and confidence that enables us to confront ourselves with ruthless honesty. Instead of confronting and fighting with our partner about small things, we confront ourselves. What is my part in this? What do I contribute to the conflict?
Sometimes in my own intimate relationship I am acting out of a bad mood or blame my partner for something that is in fact my own responsibility. I call this ‚playing games‘ and we all do it at times. At such moments our integrity and humility is needed to come out of it. Often we try to change our partner to fit our needs. ‚Be more open, be more spiritual, lose weight, be more tidy, exercise more, play less video games, spend less money, be more this and less that … ‚. We endlessly give advice and sometimes it is almost like we have become their therapist and spiritual teacher. We seem to know best what our partner’s shortcomings are and what they need to do to outgrow them. But we all know it is easy to give advice but to follow it ourselves is a different matter.
Taking care of oneself
In my experience it is helpful to take the focus away from our partner and turn it inwards: What feelings in myself do I need to connect to? When there is a painful emotion present in me, rather than expecting my partner to save and console me, I can first attend to my experience in a loving way. If, for instance, I feel unloved by my partner, I can sense into this experience: ‚What is it like to feel unloved? How does my body feel? What kind of sensations are connected to this feeling? What thoughts, beliefs or memories get triggered? Is it possible to be with this experience for a moment without doing anything about it? Without trying to get away from it or knowing what it might mean … We can connect with ourselves and process our feelings before we ask our partner for help or blame them for how we feel. This is an act of self-compassion which helps us to be grounded in our own truth.
Our partner carries our shadow
In a relationship there are usually the same things that trigger our irritation and hurt. It may be our partner’s bad temper, their neediness, their messiness or their selfishness. Usually they are qualitites that we judge, not only in them, but even more so in ourselves. We see our shadow in our partner. They are holding up a mirror for us as if to say: ‚This is you! What you see and judge in me is your own selfishness, your bad temper, your insensitivity.‘ It takes a lot of inner strength and humility to recognise and admit that our partner carries the parts that we have disowned in ourselves – and which we have conveniently projected onto them. Every time we fight with them we are also fighting against ourselves.
I have spent a lot of time alone in my life, not only in the monastery but also while traveling for months by myself or living in foreign countries. Being self-suffcient has become part of my identity and in the past I would often judge and look down on people who were always seeking connection and closeness. I would call them clingy or needy. In relationships my partner would always take that role. I was always the independent and ’strong‘ one, never needing anybody. But at some point I discovered that I too had a needy side, a part in me I had felt so uncomfortable about that it had to be denied and hidden, even from myself. To bring it out into the open and own it as part of me is a big step that is making me more accepting of myself and others.
Helping each other grow
The realisation that we project our unwanted parts onto our partner often marks a powerful shift in a relationship. We can now stop fighting and meet each other, as well as ourselves, in a different way. Instead of being opponents who fight for territory and dominance, we become companions on our journey and help each other grow. When couples reach this point their relationship often takes on a different quality. The atmosphere stops being hostile and becomes friendly where both sides feel they can put down their guard and open up to each other, revealing how they truly feel, including their vulnerability and other more tender emotions.
The quality of a relationship largely depends on how we talk to each other. It is common that people, without even noticing, express themselves in ways that are aggressive, judgmental and blaming. ‚You make me sad‘, ‚You don’t care about me‘, ‚You are too sensitive‘ are not exactly invitations for our partner to open up and listen to how we feel. They are warning signals telling us it is time to close our heart and protect ourselves. Instead of truly listening to our partner we sharpen our arrows in preparation for our next counter-attack.
Compassionate and open communication is a skill worth developing. It is important to be able to listen, not just to our partner, but also to ourselves. Listening to what is going on inside us, not so much to the thoughts and concepts but to the layers of feelings and needs underneath them. One might call it developing intimacy with oneself. Before we speak it is helpful to connect to our heart first, and then speak from there. ‚I feel this way when you say or do this‘ is very different from ‚You make me angry‘ or ‚You are always so …‘. We share our feelings without analysing or blaming our partner. And then allowing him or her to speak without interrupting. Listening carefully, not just with our ears and mind but with our hearts and body: What is she trying to tell me? How is he feeling? What must it be like to live with someone like me? It is helpful to remember that underneath any criticism there is a wish and we always have the option to express this wish rather than wasting our energy in endless accusations. In my experience a lot of conflict and fighting in relationships come to an end when both sides feel they are truly listened to. Often that is all we want.
Seeing the beauty
When we have lived with someone for some time we may become so used to having them around that we forget why we actually choose to spend our life with them. In the midst of daily routines we often focus on what we dislike in our partner and how we want them to be different. This may cloud our vision for their beauty. Consciously reminding ourselves daily what we love and appreciate about our partner and about being with them strengthens our bond and creates a healthy orientation and alignment with our deepest values. Sometimes we forget that they are not only our partner but also a human being that wants to be happy. I find it a helpful practice to every now and then look at our partner or friend as if we see them for the very first time – and let them know when we love and appreciate something about them.
In this article I share some of the things I have discovered while being in relationship as well as during the times that I was single. I hope that some of them resonate with you and that you feel inspired to use the relationships in your life to learn more about yourself – and to truly love yourself. It is extraordinary when two human beings meet with a genuine wish to open their hearts to each other, a dance of oneness and separateness, a beautiful act of faith worth acknowledging. I am not an expert on relationships and I don’t know anyone who is.
Relationships are challenging for all of us. So if you find yourself struggling, remember the good advice from one fellow traveller: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better!” Conficts are not a sign of failure, they can be used as grist for the mill.
Don’t wait for your partner or friend to love you more. Focus on loving rather than being loved. It is the most powerful and direct path to what you are looking for.