August 15, 2011

The Elephant In The Spiritual Room

(part 1 of 3 posts).

I’m a relationship coach and counselor and in the last few years I’ve started to notice a recurring pattern in my clients, the majority of whom would call themselves spiritual practitioners.

As a spiritual practitioner myself, I understand how we are hungry to grow and wake up, to do our part in creating a more conscious world. We practice for hours upon hours. We genuinely want to love bigger, to embrace more.


We have done much of our personal work in vacuums, removed from the everyday world. Whether it’s meditating for years, dancing all night, chanting for days, sipping plant medicine, fasting for weeks, finishing our Ngondro, or finally doing the Ashtanga primary series, we tend to do our spiritual work in isolation or secluded locations.

photo by Michael Vladeck

First, I want to say, “Well done! Deep bow to all of you.” All this work is beyond helpful, and please keep doing it!

But something remains unaddressed.

No matter how much my clients “practice” their practices, they still show up with the same valid challenges.

We are just like every other person on the planet–we struggle to work through everyday relationship challenges.

Gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, spiritually aware or completely asleep, we all have relationship issues.

As Trungpa Rinpoche said, “No one is above the human condition.”

Think about it. Here we are with years of various practices under our belt. We’ve had the privilege of studying with amazing teachers in amazing locations. Never before have we had such easy access to such profound teachings. We’ve gone uber-deep, but….

We have left one practice out—Relationship. Dealing with other people right here, right now in real time.


For some reason our practices, as sincere and deep as they are, have not been able to adequately address our relationship life. Our sanghas, despite our best efforts, are still dysfunctional, judgmental, fragmented, and disconnected.

It’s not like we have to be “issue-free” in relationship. Nor do I believe there’s a magical community free of relationship challenges. I certainly don’t have the fantasy anymore that my relationship issues will magically fade away.

If fact, I’m way more okay to have the relationship challenges I have, even after years of spiritual practice. I’m realizing it’s simply part of the human journey.

So, why does relationship remain so under-addressed in spiritual practice?

Here are several possibilities:

  1. High-level spiritual teachings tend to facilitate moving beyond the personal realm. (example? folks can achieve non-dual awareness and still be incompetent relationally).
  2. Teachers of the same high-level teachings have not walked their talk. They talk a big game but don’t walk it in relationship. (future blog on this incongruence coming soon…)
  3. Spiritual bypassing–We use spiritual teachings to bypass our real-time challenges at home, in line at Whole Foods, and at the office. We use “compassion” to bypass our judgments.
  4. Cultural conditioning. We are trained and conditioned to be defended in relationship and our culture supports this disconnection.
  5. Most of us are conflict avoiders, no matter how much we meditate on it.
  6. No one is giving us current, realistic practices to address our relationship life.

The next question is “how” do we address our issues in community with one another?

Some of you might be thinking, “Yeah, but I supplement my spiritual practice with psychotherapy.” Yes, psychotherapy can be an awesome complement to our spiritual practice and often addresses what the yoga mat or cushion can’t.

But you can’t guarantee everyone in your sangha is also in therapy, let alone good therapy.

Teachers like John Welwood, Joseph Goldstein, and Robert Masters address the relationship predicament as “spiritual bypassing” and offer good psychotherapy as the main alternative. I’m a yes to that.

And, what I’m suggesting here is that we make relationship a central part of the spiritual dance. That we engage in relationship practices during our retreats AND our lives, all day everyday.

Photo by Joshua Levin

For example, what if instead of having a “children’s program” where childcare providers are watching my kids while I sit on the cushion for 9 hours, I watch my mind and open my heart WHILE I parent my kids for 9 hours with other practitioners?

In other words, what if we incorporated relationship as part of our daily spiritual practice, as a spiritual path in itself?

Here’s the follow up post “Are Teachers Walking Their Talk? Nope“.  In the meantime, let’s hear your thoughts…

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