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Almost all of the advice I got from books, friends, and family boiled down to a single dictum: Relationships take work. I have to say, this did not make me happy. Not that I have anything against work, but when I looked at my sweet boyfriend and imagined that all the effortless love, passion, and delight we took in each other was somehow, through marriage, going to become a kind of drudgery, I thought WTF? How does that happen? And how can I avoid it at all costs?
The Buddhist view of exertion provides a few clues. Rather than implying drudgery, exertion is synonymous with joy. It’s not about working hard to make problems go away or trying your very best to make an effort at all times. It is so much simpler than that. Here, exertion is the noble act of taking an interest. When you get along, you take an interest in that. When you don’t, you take an interest in that, too. You take an interest when you are able to connect with your beloved openly, gracefully, and easily, and also when you connect to them with grumpiness, stupidity, and a sense of entitlement. Taking an interest is not about reductive analysis or figuring out what is going on so you can dispatch it. It is a way of opening to your own experience—and to your beloved—with tenderness and honesty. It is the act of continuously disposing of your agenda to instead live your experience fully, which gives rise to vitality, energy, and joy.

Exertion, as Chögyam Trungpa defined it, is to “work unceasingly with our own neurosis and speed.” Who doesn’t want to be married to someone who does that? When I know that my husband is committed to work in this way, whether he succeeds or fails in any particular instance, I not only trust him, my heart melts toward him.


In meditation practice, the breath is the object of attention. You train yourself to notice when the mind strays from the breath, let go of what it has strayed to, and then return to the breath. Our practice in a relationship is similar, but instead of the breath, love itself is our mutual object of attention. When attention strays into rage, disconnection, resentment—or even affection, delight, and passion—we come back to love. By love, I don’t mean any particular feeling. Perhaps opening is a better word. When my husband pisses me off with his unbelievably hypercritical comments, or I irritate the crap out of him with my self-absorption or complete lack of spatial awareness, I’m not suggesting that he or I drop our feelings and try to be all sweet and nice to each other. I’m suggesting that we simply open to each other. Again. Again. Again.

Who is he to me right now? Someone I love. And now? Someone I despise. Someone who bores me. Inspires me. Soothes me. And who is he right now, and right now, as best I can tell? Someone who feels happy. Sad. Alone. Confused. When it comes to love, the best you can hope for (and it is far better than whatever you may imagine, based on movies and whatnot) is not someone for whom you feel love all the time—or passion or admiration—but someone who will take your hand and step with you into the insane flood of need and desire and emotion and connection, and, eyes wide open, watch it all and feel it fully. Together.

To become each other’s object of meditation is a good problem-solving methodology when it comes to love.


In all my thinking about the nature of wisdom, there is only one thing I can say about it with any confidence: it has nothing to do with me or my little understandings or insights, not that there is anything wrong with them. It has more to do, it seems, with giving up on the idea of “my” wisdom and instead making a relationship to wisdom itself, the field of intelligence that underlies, encapsulates, gives rise to, and is utterly indifferent to “me.”

When I try to love my husband from a place of thinking I know what is going on between us or I know what love is, I fail to connect with him. When I am able to disengage from my ideas about who either of us is or should be or what love itself should look like, and meet him in a place beyond knowing, I see again and again that wisdom, groundlessness, and love are absolutely inseparable. So—whether our connection feels joyous, contentious, dull, or shocking—we begin again. And again.

After all the fights, daily irritations, and completely unpredictable disappearances and resurgences of love and desire, I have given up trying to analyze or control what makes us argue or reconcile. Instead, the best I can do is look at each disconnect, the teeny ones and the seemingly insurmountable ones, as yet another chance to step beyond my comfort zone and into a deeper (and more uncomfortable) love. When I try to hold our relationship in the cradle of loving-kindness in just this way, our difficulties become ornaments in the crazy dance of love.

From the September 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Susan Piver is a meditation instructor in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. Her books include the bestseller The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do” and The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: How to Turn the Pain of a Breakup Into Healing, Insight, and New Love. Piver is regularly featured in the media, including appearances on CNN, “Oprah,” and the “Today Show.”

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