By John Welwood
Harnessing the Potential for Spiritual Awakening through Genuine Intimacy
When we fall in love, this usually ushers in a special period, one with its own distinctive glow and magic. Glimpsing another person’s beauty and feeling, our heart opening in response provides a taste of absolute love, a pure blend of openness and warmth. This being-to-being connection reveals the pure gold at the heart of our nature, qualities like beauty, delight, awe, deep passion and kindness, generosity, tenderness, and joy.
Yet opening to another also flushes to the surface all kinds of conditioned patterns and obstacles that tend to shut this connection down: our deepest wounds, our grasping and desperation, our worst fears, our mistrust, our rawest emotional trigger points. As a relationship develops, we often find that we don’t have full access to the gold of our nature, for it remains embedded in the ore of our conditioned patterns. And so we continually fall from grace.
Recognizing wounds from the past
It’s important to recognize that all the emotional and psychological wounding we carry with us from the past is relational in nature: it has to do with not feeling fully loved. And it happened in our earliest relationships—with our caretakers—when our brain and body were totally soft and impressionable. As a result, the ego’s relational patterns largely developed as protection schemes to insulate us from the vulnerable openness that love entails. In relationship the ego acts as a survival mechanism for getting needs met while fending off the threat of being hurt, manipulated, controlled, rejected, or abandoned in ways we were as a child. This is normal and totally understandable. Yet if it’s the main tenor of a relationship, it keeps us locked in complex strategies of defensiveness and control that undermine the possibility of deeper connection.
Thus to gain greater access to the gold of our nature in relationship, a certain alchemy is required: the refining of our conditioned defensive patterns. The good news is that this alchemy generated between two people also furthers a larger alchemy within them. The opportunity here is to join and integrate the twin poles of human existence: heaven, the vast space of perfect, unconditional openness, and earth, our imperfect, limited human form, shaped by worldly causes and conditions. As the defensive/controlling ego cooks and melts down in the heat of love’s influence, a beautiful evolutionary development starts to emerge—the genuine person, who embodies a quality of very human relational presence that is transparent to open-hearted being, right in the midst of the dense confines of worldly conditioning.
Relationship as Charnel Ground
To clarify the workings of this alchemy, a more gritty metaphor is useful, one that comes from the tantric traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism: relationship as charnel ground. In many traditional Asian societies, the charnel ground was where people would bring dead bodies, to be eaten by vultures and jackals. From the tantric yogi’s perspective, this was an ideal place to practice, because it is right at the crossroads of life, where birth and death, fear and fearlessness, impermanence and awakening unfold right next to each other. Some things are dying and decaying, others are feeding and being fed, while others are being born out of the decay. The charnel ground is an ideal place to practice because it is right at the crossroads of life, where one cannot help but feel the rawness of human existence.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described the charnel ground as “that great graveyard, in which the complexities of samsara and nirvana lie buried.” Samsara is the conditioned mind that clouds our true nature, while nirvana is the direct seeing of this nature. As Trungpa Rinpoche describes this daunting crossroads in one of his early seminars:
It’s a place to die and be born, equally, at the same time, it’s simply our raw and rugged nature, the ground where we constantly puke and fall down, constantly make a mess. We are constantly dying, we are constantly giving birth. We are eating in the charnel ground, sitting in it, sleeping on it, having nightmares on it… Yet it does not try to hide its truth about reality. There are corpses lying all over the place, loose arms, loose hands, loose internal organs, and flowing hairs all over the place, jackals and vultures are roaming about, each one devising its own scheme for getting the best piece of flesh.
Many of us have a cartoon-like notion of relational bliss: that it should provide a steady state of security or solace that will save us from having to face the gritty, painful, difficult areas of life. We imagine that finding or marrying the right person will spare us from having to deal with such things as loneliness, disappointment, despair, terror, or disintegration. Yet anyone who has been married for a long time probably has some knowledge of the charnel ground quality of relationship—corpses all over the place, and jackals and vultures roaming about looking for the best piece of flesh. Trungpa Rinpoche suggests that if we can work with the “raw and rugged situation” of the charnel ground, “then some spark or sympathy or compassion, some giving in or opening can begin to take place. The chaos that takes place in your neurosis is the only home ground that you can build the mandala of awakening on.” This last sentence is a powerful one, for it suggests that awakening happens only through facing the chaos of our neurotic patterns. Yet this is often the last thing we want to deal with in relationships.
Trungpa Rinpoche suggests that our neurosis is built on the fact that:
…large areas of our life have been devoted to trying to avoid discovering our own experience. Now [in the charnel ground, in our relationships] we have a chance to explore that large area which exists in our being, which we’ve been trying to avoid. That seems to be the first message, which may be very grim, but also very exciting. We’re not trying to get away from the charnel ground, we don’t want to build a Hilton hotel in the middle of it. Building the mandala of awakening actually happens on the charnel ground. What is happening on the charnel ground is constant personal exploration, and beyond that, just giving, opening, extending yourself completely to the situation that’s available to you. Being fantastically exposed, and the sense that you could give birth to another world.
This also describes the spiritual potential of intimate involvement with another human being.
Another quote with a similar feeling comes from Swami Rudrananda (known as Rudy, a German teacher who was a student of the Indian saint Swami Nityananda), further describing how to work with neurosis in this way:
Don’t look for perfection in me. I want to acknowledge my own imperfection, I want to understand that that is part of the endlessness of my growth. It’s absolutely useless at this stage in your life, with all of the shit piled up in your closet, to walk around and try to kid yourself about your perfection. Out of the raw material you break down [here he is also speaking of the charnel ground] you grow and absorb the energy. You work yourself from inside out, tearing out, destroying, and finding a sense of nothingness. That nothingness allows God to come in. But this somethingness—ego and prejudices and limitations—is your raw material. If you process and refine it all, you can open consciously. Otherwise, you will never come to anything that represents yourself … The only thing that can create a oneness inside you is the ability to see more of yourself as you work every day to open deeper and say, fine, “I’m short-tempered,” or “Fine, I’m aggressive,” or, “Fine, I love to make money,” or, “I have no feeling for anybody else.” Once you recognize you’re all of these things, you’ll finally be able to take a breath and allow these things to open.
Rudy suggests that we have to acknowledge and embrace our imperfections as spiritual path; therefore grand spiritual pretensions miss the point. In his words, “A man who thinks he has a spiritual life is really an idiot.” The same is true of relationships: beware of thinking you have a “spiritual relationship.” While loving connection provides a glimpse of the gold that lies within, we continually corrupt it by turning it into a commodity, a magical charm to make us feel okay. All the delusions of romantic love follow from there. Focusing on relationship as a spiritual or emotional “fix” actually destroys the possibility of finding deep joy, true ease, or honest connection with another.
Sooner or later relationship brings us to our knees, forcing us to confront the raw and rugged mess of our mental and emotional life. George Orwell points to this devastating quality of human love in a sentence that also has a charnel ground flavor to it:
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, and that one is prepared, in the end, to be defeated, and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.
This then is the meaning of the charnel ground: we have to be willing to come apart at the seams, to be dismantled, to let our old ego structures fall apart before we can begin to embody sparks of the essential perfection at the core of our nature. To evolve spiritually, we have to allow these unworked, hidden, messy parts of ourselves to come to the surface. It’s not that the strategic, controlling ego is something bad or some unnecessary, horrible mistake. Rather, it provides the indispensable grist that makes alchemical transformation possible.
This is not a pessimistic view, because some kind of breakdown is usually necessary before any significant breakthrough into new ways of living not so encumbered by past conditioning. Charnel ground, then, is a metaphor for this breakdown/breakthrough process that is an essential part of human growth and evolution, and one of the gifts of a deep, intimate connection is that it naturally sets this process in motion. Yet no one wants to be dismantled. So there are two main ways that people try to abort this process: running away and spiritual bypassing.
Running from our own potential
The problem with running away when a relationship becomes difficult is that we are also turning away from ourselves and our potential breakthroughs. Fleeing the raw, wounded places in ourselves because we don’t think we can handle them is a form of self-rejection and self-abandonment that turns our feeling body into an abandoned, haunted house. The more we flee our shadowy places, the more they fester in the dark and the more haunted this house becomes. And the more haunted it becomes, the more it terrifies us. This is a vicious circle that keeps us cut off from and afraid of ourselves.
One of the scariest places we encounter in relationship is a deep inner sense of unlove, where we don’t know that we’re truly lovable just for being who we are, where we feel deficient and don’t know our value. This is the raw wound of the heart, where we’re disconnected from our true nature, our inner perfection. Naturally we want to do everything we can to avoid this place, fix it, or neutralize it, so we’ll never have to experience such pain again.
A second way to flee from the challenges of relationship is through spiritual bypassing—using spiritual ideas or practices to avoid or prematurely transcend relative human needs, feelings, personal issues, and developmental tasks. For example, a certain segment of the contemporary spiritual scene has become infected with a facile brand of “advaita-speak,” a one-sided transcendentalism that uses non-dual terms and ideas to bypass the challenging work of personal transformation.
Advaita-speak can be very tricky, for it uses absolute truth to disparage relative truth, emptiness to devalue form, and oneness to belittle individuality. The following quotes from two popular contemporary teachers illustrate this tendency: “Know that what appears to be love for another is really love of Self, because other doesn’t exist,” and “The other’s ‘otherness’ stands revealed as an illusion pertaining to the purely human realm, the realm of form.” Notice the devaluation of form and the human realm in the latter statement. By suggesting that only absolute love or being-to-being union is real, these teachers equate the person-to-person element necessary for a transformative love bond with mere ego or illusion.
Yet personal intimacy is a spark flashing out across the divide between self and other. It depends on strong individuals making warm, personal contact, mutually sparking and enriching each other with complementary qualities and energies. This is the meeting of I and Thou, which Martin Buber understood not as an impersonal spiritual union but as a personal communion rooted in deep appreciation of the other’s otherness.
A deep, intimate connection inevitably brings up all our love wounds from the past. This is why many spiritual practitioners try to remain above the fray and impersonal in their relationships—so as not to face and deal with their own unhealed relational wounds. But this keeps the wounding unconscious, causing it to emerge as compulsive shadowy behavior or to dry up passion and juice. Intimate personal connecting cannot evolve unless the old love wounds that block it are faced, acknowledged, and freed up.
The dancing ground of dualities
As wonderful as moments of being-to-being union can be, the alchemical play of joining heaven and earth in a relationship involves a more subtle and beautiful dance: not losing our twoness in the oneness, while not losing our oneness in the twoness. Personal intimacy evolves out of the dancing ground of dualities: personal and trans-personal, known and unknown, death and birth, openness and karmic limitation, clarity and chaos, hellish clashes and heavenly bliss. The clash and interplay of these polarities, with all its shocks and surprises, provides a ferment that allows for deep transformation through forcing us to keep waking up, dropping preconceptions, expanding our sense of who we are, and learning to work with all the different elements of our humanity.
When we’re in the midst of this ferment, it may seem like some kind of fiendish plot. We finally find someone we really love and then the most difficult things start emerging: fear, distrust, unlove, disillusion, resentment, blame, confusion. Yet this is a form of love’s grace—that it brings our wounds and defenses forward into the light. For love can only heal what presents itself to be healed. If our woundedness remains hidden, it cannot be healed; the best in us cannot come out unless the worst comes out as well.
So instead of constructing a fancy hotel in the charnel ground, we must be willing to come down and relate to the mess on the ground. We need to regard the wounded heart as a place of spiritual practice. This kind of practice means engaging with our relational fears and vulnerabilities in a deliberate, conscious way, like the yogis of old who faced down the goblins and demons of the charnel grounds.
ABOUT JOHN WELWOOD:
John Welwood, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist who has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than thirty-five years. His books include Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart.
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