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While the highlands of absolute love are most beautiful, few but the saints can spend all their time there. Relative human love is not a peak experience nor a steady state. It wavers, fluctuates, waxes and wanes, changes shape and intensity, soars and crashes. “This is the exalted melancholy of our fate,” writes Buber, describing how moments of I/Thou communion cannot last too very long. Yet though relationships participate fully in the law of impermanence, the good news is that this allows new surprises and revelations to keep arising endlessly.
Relationship as Koan
Relating to the full spectrum of our experience in the relational charnel ground leads to a self-acceptance that expands our capacity to embrace and accept others as well. Usually our view of our partners is colored by what they do for us—how they make us look or feel good, or not—and shaped by our internal movie about what we want them to be. This of course makes it hard to see them for who they are in their own right.
Beyond our movie of the other is a much larger field of personal and spiritual possibilities, what Walt Whitman referred to when he said, “I contain multitudes.” These “multitudes” are what keep a relationship fresh and interesting, but they can only do that if we can accept the ways that those we love are different from us—in their background, values, perspectives, qualities, sensitivities, preferences, ways of doing things, and, finally, their destiny. In the words of Swami Prajnanpad, standing advaita-speak on its head: “To see fully that the other is not you is the way to realizing oneness … Nothing is separate, everything is different … Love is the appreciation of difference."
Two partners not holding themselves separate, while remaining totally distinct—“not two, not one”—may seem like an impossible challenge in a relationship. Bernard Phillips, an early student of East/West psychology, likens this impossibility of relationship to a Zen koan, a riddle that cannot be solved with the conceptual mind. After continually trying and failing to figure out the answer, Zen students arrive at a genuine solution only in the moment of finally giving up and giving in. In Phillips’ words:
Every human being with whom we seek relatedness is a koan, that is to say, an impossibility. There is no formula for getting along with a human being. No technique will achieve relatedness. I am impossible to get along with; so is each one of you; all our friends are impossible; the members of our families are impossible. How then shall we get along with them? … If you are seeking a real encounter, then you must confront the koan represented by the other person. The koan is an invitation to enter into reality.
In the end, to love another requires dropping all our narcissistic agendas, movies, hopes, and fears, so that we may look freshly and see “the raw other, the sacred other,” just as he or she is. This involves a surrender, or perhaps defeat, as in George Orwell’s words about being “defeated and broken up by life.” What is defeated here, of course, is the ego and its strategies, clearing the way for the genuine person to emerge, the person who is capable of real, full-spectrum contact. The nobility of this kind of defeat is portrayed by Rilke in four powerful lines describing Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel:
Winning does not tempt that man
For this is how he grows:
By being defeated, decisively,
By constantly greater beings.
In relationship, it is two partners’ greater beings, gradually freeing themselves from the prison of conditioned patterns, that bring about this decisive defeat. And as this starts reverberating through their relationship, old expectations finally give way, old movies stop running, and a much larger acceptance than they believed possible can start opening up between them. As they become willing to face and embrace whatever stands between them—old relational wounds from the past, personal pathologies, difficulties hearing and understanding each other, different values and sensitivities—all in the name of loving and letting be, they are invited to “enter into reality.” Then it becomes possible to start encountering each other nakedly, in the open field of nowness, fresh and unfabricated, the field of love forever vibrating with unimagined possibilities.
This essay is adapted from a talk given at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Copyright 2008 by John Welwood. All rights reserved.
John Welwood, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist who has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than thirty-five years. Although not explicitly autobiographical, this article traces his journey through his twenty-year marriage. His books include Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart.