Bringing Our Togetherness Back to Life
By Jeannie Zandi
By showing us who we are and how to live surrendered to what is, nondual wisdom can greatly minimize the suffering that is our common human affliction in a separation-based society. This awareness as a psychotherapist throws a new light on the issues that a client brings to the session room. Even the least “spiritual” client, who may not be interested in esoteric talk of one’s true nature as consciousness, is interested in suffering less, especially in the relationships that matter most. Here, I will explore the difference between the concept of relationship, which is born of conditioning and can only perpetuate the isolation and distress we feel inside of identification with a “me,” and the actual experience of moment-to-moment relating, which is our birthright and an expression of our natural state.
Typically when we speak of relationship in our culture, we are referring to the concept of relationship, to an object. We say “I have a relationship,” or “I’m in a relationship,” “I want a relationship,” or “My relationship sucks.” And we grow up with the promise that if we find the right person and do the right things, that relationship will bring us happiness, joy, fulfillment, belonging and the end of loneliness. We even bring this conditioning into our spiritual mythology as a belief that “manifesting our soul mate” will cause Nirvana to descend upon us.
The only thing that can deliver what we are seeking through relationship is contact with, and an ever-deepening living from, the Real.* Thus relationship, as an object to pursue, acquire, get right and keep, becomes a false god, heaped with the hopes and dreams of our lost connection to our deepest Self. To the extent that the relating between any two people is pressured to deliver on the societal promise, we turn something that is natural and easeful (learning about and enjoying each other, negotiating and appreciating differences) into a stressful attempt to force the actual relating to adhere to an inner ideal so that we are not left feeling the things from which the relationship is supposed to save us. A conditioned relationship gone bad simply becomes a competition to squeeze our sense of our own goodness out of the “other” by getting them to behave in the ways we need them to in order to feel good.
The concept of relationship isn’t simple, like the concept of a ball – something round that we can throw, kick or hit in a game. It is a highly complex set of assumptions, expectations, beliefs, rules, and conditions that are widely shared in our culture, though some variation exists between groups, families and individuals. In addition to the underlying assumptions, which are relatively static, there are dynamic learned strategies we use to attempt to evaluate, correct, solidify and nail down something that is meant to be beyond measurement, alive, changing and unpredictable – everything from pleasing to pouting to spying to working on our “stuff” to be good enough.
This complex conceptual system is largely held unconsciously – we don’t even know that this mutually bought-into system does not reflect reality. In fact, we don’t even realize it’s a conceptual system. And sometimes, neither does the therapist. So the first step a therapist needs to take before offering couples therapy is to examine the conditioned assumptions, expectations, beliefs, rules and conditions, and the accompanying strategies that make up her own complex conceptual box called “relationship.” This is no small feat. The more open, clear and self-knowledgeable the therapist is about these, the freer the space she can offer to clients. (A “couple” is another complex conceptual system, as is a “human being.” Discovering the reality and actuality of what any of these words points to is a fascinating excavation of our true nature.)
In nondual circles we talk a lot about our “conditioning,” but what is it? In psychology, it is “a process of changing behavior by rewarding or punishing a subject each time an act is performed until the subject associates the action with pleasure or distress.” (dictionary.reference.com) What we are left with after the completion of our extensive social conditioning process are large areas where we are unconsciously seeking pleasure or avoiding distress instead of expressing the truth of our being. And despite its occasional and generally short-term benefits (getting pats or avoiding whacks), it turns out the result of this behavior is suffering, as we get further and further away from leading simple, present-centered, truth-filled lives from our natural state, and become more and more unconsciously invested in our pleasure-seeking/distress-avoiding strategies.
We don’t suffer because of our relationships – we suffer because of our disconnection from the Real. And there is nothing better to distract us from the search for the Real than the promise that some object out there is finally going to make us happy. As long as we are living predominantly through unconscious concepts and seeking fulfillment through the acquisition of objects, we are putting our attention on conditioned pseudo-reality versus actual reality, and perpetuating our suffering. Attempting to relate to another human being through one’s relationship concept is a dead-end street in terms of joy, fulfillment and intimacy.
Relationship built on conditioning is not sustainable, transformative, growthful or, in the long run, fun or good for anyone. As we increasingly seek to solidify the other in order to feel good about ourselves, and find ourselves being solidified in order to evoke positivity from our partner, the life goes out of our togetherness. And how could it not? Instead of tending to alive relating, we are seeking to change living, breathing, dynamic expressions of God, and the mysterious space in which we meet, into solid, predictable objects. It can be a relief for couples who come to therapy to realize that they are not failures at applying a wonderful system that works for everyone else, but rather are sane wonderful people who unknowingly have proven through their experience the obsolescence of our conditioned model. They are actually healthy for the fact that they cannot make an insane strategy work on each other, and their seeking for help is more a sign of success than failure.
The complete and utter failure of the conditioned relationship model produces the humility that is a prerequisite to relating from aliveness, just as the utter failure of the “me” model is a prerequisite to relating as a human being from our natural state. So let’s raise a glass to the entry point to true living – total and unmitigated failure! If love is involved, if the two people have discovered something real about their togetherness and kept in touch with it despite their difficulties, that channel for love can be the beckoning glint that leads them further into the cauldron of their own undoing. So you now can see my bias as a spiritual teacher sitting with any two people on these issues – whosoever loves and enters into sustained relating opens the possibility of the death of “me.”
At some point an ethical consideration presents itself – is it fair to foist one’s penchant for dying to God upon one’s clients, when they are simply coming in to save their relationship? I tell people who I sit with that my emphasis is on the truth and alive relating, not on any particular structure of relationship, as the rigidified concept of their “relationship” might actually be what is getting in the way of satisfying relating! If they run screaming from the room, I know they are someone else’s clients. I think each true servant of humanity benefits from discovering and understanding her own approach and the perspective behind it. Ideally this becomes explicit in the counseling room at some point as well. The good news is that the benefit of nondual wisdom is not all about death and dismemberment – to relate simply from the present actually does serve our happiness, it’s just a deeper form than the pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding happiness on which we were betting the farm.
What does relating look like outside of the concept of relationship? If we allow our beloved dreams to collapse, along with all of our scheming and strategizing to obtain them, and rest here in the moment as clueless not-knowing, what happens to our relationships? What are they? If we check in with every breath to see if what we are saying and doing is in alignment with our highest and deepest truth, what aspects of what we call our relationships will survive and what aspects will need an overhaul? What aspects of what we consider “me” will survive and how much will need to be discarded?
What is it like to function inside a relationship that is an object and what is it like to relate from aliveness and actuality without that concept? What are the rules, the feel, and the quality of each? If you saw a couple of humans relating from the first or the second, what would each look like? We can use the two descriptions not only to understand what I’m trying to convey, but also to see ourselves reflected in these descriptions during a particularly free or a particularly challenged relational moment, and learn something about the place from which we are relating.
The concept of relationship is a noun, an “it.” It’s something to get, to have, to keep, to protect, to tell people about: “I have one.” We are either “in” or “out;” it is either “on” or “off.” This sort of relationship bolsters and supports the “me.” In fact, a “me” is a prerequisite to living inside this sort of relationship, and the relationship can become an ornament on our “me” tree, another trinket that we use to prove that we are somebody. Somebody good! Each aspect of a highly conditioned and complex concept such as relationship has a good side and a bad side, depending on whether we have been conditioned to glean pleasure or distress from it. (In other words, neither “side” actually produces pleasure or distress – it is our conditioning that does so.) So within the conceptual system of relationship, generally if I have one, I’m good. If I don’t have one, I’m bad. If I have a bad one, I’m bad (or my partner is). If I have a good one, I’m good (I’ll take the credit here). It’s going well today, I’m good. It’s not going well today, I’m bad (or my partner is). The reality is our sense of well-being and connection to the Real is not actually predicated upon certain relational configurations, but it seems so within conditioning.
The 360-degree sphere of actual experience (what’s it actually like in this moment for everyone, below thought?) is shrunken down to a finite set of possibilities: good and bad. We are nowhere near the actual experience of the moment – we are too busy evaluating it and scheming about how to get good and safe in the next moment. With each aspect of the relationship concept, there’s a way to be good and a way to be bad, and unconsciously we’re working overtime to be good, which actually obscures our connection to our inherent goodness as being. Once we discover our true being, the whole system of identification that keeps us enslaved to proving our goodness and minimizing our badness, is seen as a ridiculous waste of time. (A short anecdote here – when my daughter was 7, she came home from school and asked, “Mama, what does ‘being fake’ mean?” To which I replied, “That’s when you pretend you are different than you are, or you feel differently than you do, so that people will like you.” She exclaimed with horror, “Why would anyone want to do that!?”)
Alive relating, on the other hand, is a verb, and it requires no maintenance or evaluation. There is nothing to be “in” or “out” of – it just IS and it is like this right now. The quality of the relating in the moment is met, without distancing from it to evaluate it, manipulate it or manage it. The emphasis is not so much on what it means, but on noticing that it is, and deeply receiving/feeling how it is, whatever the flavor. Relating is happening all the time, for your enjoyment or excruciation, courtesy of the Beloved. Within conditioning, we skip over the actual experience of relating in pursuit of the “it” of relationship (getting a good one, making sure it’s going well) because we think that achieving the “it” will get us somewhere good. But any of us who have some years under our belts know that this approach to living doesn’t result in anything but suffering. There’s something wrong with the program, not with you.
In addition to this goodness/badness game of conditioned relationship, there are also tracking systems – it’s important to keep track of who’s good, how good we are, how good we are in relation to this one, how good we are in relation to that one, and who owes whom. We move toward the ones who make us feel good and away from the ones who make us feel bad. Again, our relating in this case is steered by the unconscious habit to seek pleasure and avoid distress, not by the truth. When we are conscious of this dynamic, we can willingly move toward pain and move through it, so as to start to develop a wider view of the possibilities in any moment. When our vision has shrunk to see only good and bad, only short-term pleasure and pain, unconsciously we will move toward trying to get good every time, ignoring reality and possibility, like rats in a maze.
Relating through a concept has fear as its motivational energy, whereas relating from actuality is based on love. Where conditioning lives, unconscious fear lives too. In the absence of conditioning, love and freedom reign. In fear-based me-centric relationship, our questions are, “How does this serve me?” and “What’s safe?” In alive relating, our questions are, “How does this serve God?” and “What’s true?”
Within the paradigm of relationship as concept or as an ”it,” I need one to give me love and connection. If I have one, I’ll have love. If I behave properly inside of one, I’ll have love. If you behave properly inside of it, I’ll have love. So I need it and I need to control it, so that I have the good stuff. When we are in this sort of acquire-and-protect mode it has the feel of going and getting something, of working to get it, to secure it, to nail it down. This sort of togetherness is based on an underlying sense of lack and the need for control in order to guarantee love’s supply. It requires at least one project manager, as we try to control things so our comfort is maximized, shutting down pieces of ourselves as necessary. The project needs to be managed closely because if we did not stay on top of it, where would we be?
In alive relating, I am love, I am connectedness itself, and the fact of love’s abundance is clear from the bubbling fountain of my being. From alive relating and resting in the Real, it’s completely ludicrous to think that love comes from the outside. Pats and kind words are nice, but our bread and butter come from within. In alive relating, the sense is, the Holy has it handled. So there is a giving over of anticipation, management, and figuring it out, for this right here. Maybe it will end, maybe it won’t end, maybe you’ll like me today, and maybe you won’t – no management, just a meeting of what is. Alive relating invites a settling into the now, a settling into what we are, whatever the feel of it is in this moment.
In the concept of relationship, separation reigns and objects seem very solid. So there’s “me” and there’s “you” and there’s “the relationship.” There are other discrete objects too, those who might threaten it, those who might take us away from it. In alive relating, objects disappear as the background becomes the foreground. Mistrust is met as it rises and dissolves as we rest as vibrating Being. Objects become almost transparent, like waves. There’s a sense of a you and a me, but what’s really primary is this vibrating field, this alive moment, to which everyone belongs.
Inside the relationship concept, you are a solid, predictable object, or at least you should be. Don’t surprise me, because a “me” doesn’t like to feel out of control, and I’ll blame those feelings on you for misbehaving. When I come home, be home. When I say “I love you,” say “I love you” back. Don’t leave me out here in the sea without a paddle. You are my reassurance object, my reference point for my safety and you owe it to me to be that, according to the rules of the relationship concept. The primary relating here is between conceptual images, and the alive flow of life is mistrusted and seen as a potential threat to the relationship. The unknown is seen as dangerous and thus filled in with identification, definition and meaning. Authentic impulses are seen as suspicious, potentially leading to the dissolution of the status quo, and therefore are ignored or downright discouraged, as we take solace in our predictable, defined togetherness. Our focus is on how we need to be for the other to feel good and loved, or how we need our partner to be so we feel that way.
Within alive relating, you are an ever-changing miracle, and so am I. You are a wonder! An unpredictable, wild force of nature, and I love you to be that, because I love actuality. I am not demanding anything of you because I see you as a gift to cherish and enjoy, a free being whose truth and path are not mine with which to meddle. The primary relationship (if we can even call it that, as the sense of “two” dissolves) is between emptiness and the flow of experience. There is a trust and love of the flow, and a sense that the unknown is enlivening. Emphasis goes to what is happening now, whether it brings pleasure or causes distress, because we’re here for it, we love the truth, the actual flowing moment! We are both expressions of this flow. When we are dropped in and dissolved in this, the feeling is that everything is alive and new, nothing is ever the same. Authentic impulses are celebrated, made room for, as possibilities for each of us and our togetherness expand. This sort of relating can dismantle what’s left of the clinging “me.” Our focus is on blessing and freeing the other to be the unique, organic, authentic expression that they are, leaving identification behind.
In the concept of relationship, time is important. Our relationship has a past and a future. Our past becomes very important either as a wellspring of inspiration (“Remember how in love we were?”), material for identification (“We’ve been married 56 years, longer than anyone we know!”), or as a database to draw upon when cross-blaming (“Well, why should you be mad at me for being attracted to him, you were attracted to her!”). Our future as well becomes very important – we need constant reassurance that we have one together, to plug up our great fear of the unknown and unpredictable nature of being alive, and to cheer us up with promises of trips and goals that distract us from our current suffering.
In relating, past and future fade and there is only the timeless immediacy of now. There’s just this. Right here. All our eggs are in the basket of the present, not in saving anything for later but in fully experiencing this. Memories from the past, whether pleasant or unpleasant, are met as they arise, when they arise, without fishing for them or using them to bolster good-me-ness. Thoughts of the future are traded in for a complete immersion in the trust of the flow, no matter where it leads or how it feels.
Within the relationship concept, the structure and agreements of our partnership come from socially conditioned and unconsciously held rules and agreements, and these are seen as a standard that “everyone knows.” These rigid rules and agreements are imposed like a template upon actuality rather than rising from it, and deviating from them (or wanting to) is seen as not loving the other or somehow betraying the relationship.
The creative structure that arises through alive relating is birthed out of what’s alive and organically enduring for these two unique beings. Contrary to belief, there is structure in God’s country – the Holy builds mountains that last eons and cells that are perfect for their function. The structure here rises out of what is, rather than being imposed on it. It is mutual, conscious, unique and revisable. When the structure of relating is built from moment-to-moment abidance in the truth, it is a gift, but a gift that must be subject to new bulletins from the Holy in each moment. Conscious agreements are forged as long as they are alive, mutual, and born of these unique beings at this time (rather than from rigid definitions of “should”), and they form what we are together. Rather than relying on rigid rules to make sure things go well, we trust in our mutual integrity and respect, and our ability to stay in touch with each other in an ongoing way. Sadly, most of our relational structures are built from unconscious encrusted ideas that we are trying to cram living, breathing beings into, rather than from Divine Will – and so turn out to be deadening prison cells.
Inside the concept of relationship, our idea of commitment is to a person and to an unconscious and rigidified form of relationship with that person. We make efforts to preserve the structure and adhere to it, and follow its rules, as proof of our love. The commitment from within alive relating is to the authentic expression of our highest and most tender Self, and regard for all beings is included in that – a strict adherence to what is true for us is combined with a constant awareness of the sensitive heart of the other.
One caveat – the concepts that rise out of talk of nonduality and freedom can be used to justify all kinds of shoddy behavior in relationship. In the name of “no structure” we can be running a pattern of fear of intimacy. In the name of our “freedom,” we can demand our narcissistic right to do whatever we want regardless of the effect on another. It is important that we explore the bounds and possibilities of relating with people who share our own depth of integrity, self-responsibility and purity of intention.
To journey from living within conditioning to living free is to land here, now, dropping everything and noticing what is. It is the willingness to look, see and become aware of how conditioned complexes operate within our energetic systems, to take responsibility for them, and to find the infinite possibilities that lie outside their walls of right and wrong, good and bad. It is to have passion for self-knowledge, a thirst for drinking the pure, clean water of our own authentic expression. It is to find support for the things we have to face as we drop our conditioned patterns (they were born of pain and it’s pain we’ll get to feel as we stop using them to cope) and open to a radical vulnerability in the moment. It is to free every human being we come in contact with to be who they are and to feel whatever in us has difficulty with that. When things get confusing, it is to find sources of clarity in those who have carved out areas of sanity in themselves. And by being a pioneer in her own discovery of Self-in-relating, the nondual therapist can become such a source of clarity, and a torchbearer for others.
*This article assumes the reader is at least acquainted with the nondual concept of the Real.