This is the only way to truly love: to be awake and present to what is.
One of our many functions in the world is as Buddhist ministers, and as such we were honored and utterly delighted to officiate at the December wedding of Acharya Emily Bower (a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition) and Dr. Peter Alan Robert’s (renowned Tibetan translator and Rose’s fellow Brit).
The wedding day began with offerings of the four elements (earth, water, fire, and air) and words on the themes of support for relationships and interconnection and ended with the two newly-joined families busting their impressive trademark moves on the dance floor, which we enthusiastically joined in.
This heartwarming and inspiring event along with heading into Valentine’s month got us ruminating on love and relationships. A fascinating book on this topic is Can Love Last? by Stephen Mitchell.
One of the main points of inquiry in Can Love Last? is couples’ tendency to become bored, disinterested, or disconnected in long-term relationships. This can lead to the conclusion that it is not possible for love and desire to last (hence the title of the book). This is not to presume that all relationships should last—each relationship deserves the respect of its uniqueness, which causes it to rise above any general truisms that attempt to define it.
At the same time, Mitchell points out that one “habituation that often, perhaps usually, dulls romantic love is not intrinsic to the nature of love itself but is a protective degradation, a defense against” each partner’s “vulnerability”; a vulnerability that is “inherent in romantic love.”
Once we have found someone to love we try to make the situation safe and lasting. We develop stated and subtle agreements with our partner around how we expect to be treated and how we will treat the other. Building our relationship and romantic life in this conscious way supports the foundation of the relationship and strengthens it.
In order to love, we need to feel a certain level of safety.
The problems come, however, when our longing for safety develops into a process of solidification that seeps over onto the other person and all aspects of our relationship. Sometimes we assume that our partner will always be there for us and will never change from the person we take them to be. We have spent so long getting to know this person we begin to predict their responses and feelings about all sorts of things. So, we stop being curious about them, and we get bored. We gradually train ourselves to relate with our ideas of our partner rather than their living, breathing, fluid, changing, and vibrant reality.
This reflects what Buddhism describes as our misguided tendency to try to make the world a place that it is not.
We try to freeze our experience into manageable, predictable entities. Our concepts define our reality, ourselves, and the objects of our world, and whether we choose to like, dislike, or ignore them. Then we feel that the world is knowable and safe, and we grasp how to react with all these people and objects, in each given situation.
Unfortunately, this tactic has undesirable consequences as well. It does not truly make us secure, and it separates us from our loved ones and the world. When we relate with our ideas of the world rather than the fluid, ever-changing world that is there, we feel disconnected, out of harmony with the world, and when the true nature of the world does penetrate our secure bubble, it comes as a mighty shock.
The movie, The Descendents, depicts many standard hallmarks of long-term relationships. George Clooney plays a man whose wife is in coma. He also learns that she has been having an affair and was planning to ask him for a divorce. It becomes apparent that they have been drifting apart over time and she came to look for satisfaction in dangerous sports and a love affair. Suddenly, he realizes that his wife was not who he thought she was, and he had no idea what she was feeling or doing. His fixation on work obscured his appreciation of the preciousness of life and how fragile it is. Somehow we always expect more time with our partner, but at some point that time will run out. If we have not accustomed our minds to impermanence, we feel the sense of lost opportunities.
The understanding of impermanence can be a great support in long-term relationship. Richard Freeman talks about developing a relationship with impermanence in his book The Mirror of Yoga:
It begins with an understanding that not only are our bodies extremely temporary events but so are the bodies of all other sentient beings, and that beyond that, all types of manifestations are also temporary. Quite naturally, we may be afraid to let our minds dissolve into the obvious fact that not only are we going to die, but our children are going to die, as are our children’s children. We are all faced with the fact that our parent are going to die or have already died, as have their parents and their ancestors before them; all beings, past and future without end, are going to die.
And then, not only are these bodies of ourselves and others temporary but every moment is fleeting and ungraspable. Initially, this can seem quite depressing, but, with deeper contemplation, we may find it inspiring. When we understand impermanence, we enter the fluid nature of reality in a deeply profound yet palpable way. We see the preciousness of every fleeting moment and every transient life. When we see the preciousness in life, we realize how everything is worthy of our attention. We begin to get curious about our lives: What is here in this moment? Who am I in this moment? Who are you in this moment? Who do I want to be in this moment? This opens us up to the richness and possibility of each moment in a way that can be directly experienced.
This is the only way to truly love: to be awake and present to what is.
As the great Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, writes in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism:
Love or compassion, the open path, is associated with “what is.” In order to develop love—universal love, cosmic love, whatever you would like to call it—one must accept the whole situation of life as it is, both the light and the dark, the good and the bad. One must open oneself to life, communicate with it.
In conclusion, what we are taking away from this conversation is:
• the importance of relinquishing our assumptions that our relationships are secure and our partners are predictable and known quantities; and of fostering continual curiosity, wonder, and appreciation for the mystery of who our partner actually is
• keeping the teaching of impermanence in mind and knowing how that makes every moment in our lives so precious
• the willingness to be with what is, to see past our conceptual projections to what is actually manifest and real.
And, we would like to wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day and leave you with this aspiration of love for all:
May we learn to love ourselves and, in so doing, learn to love others.
May we learn to love others and, in so doing, learn to love ourselves.
May we realize the equality and nonduality of self and other.
Ari Goldfield’s Harvard Law School training led him to a six-month unillustrious career in corporate law before he set off for Asia to study Tibetan and find his Buddhist teacher. He went on to travel the world for thirteen years with his teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, acting as Rinpoche’s translator and secretary. Rose Taylor Goldfield grew up in a Dharma household, where she learned meditation at a very young age, and progressed through the practice and study lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She received her masters from Naropa University in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies with Tibetan language, and is a certified life-coach. Ari and Rose teach Buddhist philosophy, meditation, yogic exercise, and dance in their local San Francisco Bay Area and internationally. They are spiritual directors of the Wisdom Sun community. You can explore more about them and their offerings on their website and meander around with @RoseTGold
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta