Heart Healers

When Romance Becomes Problematical

From Yoga Journal, February 2008

When I was six, the cutest boy in my class, Hughey Wise, asked me to meet him after school. I showed up, he didn’t. Maybe, in the way of six-year-old boys, he’d decided it wasn’t cool to spend the afternoon with a girl. Maybe he had a dentist appointment. I never found out, because neither of us ever mentioned it again. It was my first recognition of the unreliable nature of romantic agreements, the sheer unpredictability of human relationships.

Since I’ve been writing the Wisdom column for Yoga Journal, I’ve received many letters from people who are experiencing that unpredictability. So I’ve decided to do this special column of answers to questions about love. Don’t worry: Yoga Journal isn’t permanently turning this column into a life coaching or armchair psychology feature. The question and answer format simply seems the best way to look at the some of problematic aspects of romantic connection, and see how we can use them for deeper spiritual practice. Of course, people rarely ask for advice when things are going well. They look for help in times of upheaval or stasis or loss. So, what we have here are some nitty-gritty hard questions, questions that focus on a few core dilemmas of romantic love, along with answers that call on the wisdom of yoga to help you get to love’s unconditional essence.

Getting Over It

Q: I am having trouble letting go of a relationship that is over. We had a soul-mate connection, but an unsatisfying and stormy relationship. I have an intuition that it’s not quite over, which is leading me to hope. Also, I am still in love and my instinct is to nurture the love. How do I let go?

A: In our culture, there’s a basic assumption that being in love means that we are supposed to walk off into the sunset together. The truth is, two people can be close, love each other deeply and romantically, and not be suited to a long-term relationship. In fact, having a soul-mate connection is not necessarily a good platform for a permanent relationship. Often, that strong sense of connection means that the two people have intense karma from the past, often of a painful kind that needs resolution. The feeling of being soul-mates can actually be the karmas drawing the two of you together so that you’ll work out some unfinished business, complete an agreement, or help each other in some specific but limited way.

Paradoxically, being willing to accept the fact that you may not be together as a couple is the first step towards keeping the love while letting go of the suffering. There may still be pain–loss and endings are painful. By accepting the loss, however, you open the door for a different kind of flowering, either between yourself and this person, or between you and someone else.

So, here’s my suggestion. Every time you feel the love and pain, formally offer it up to the universe or to God. Do this over and over, and you’ll begin to notice that the love between you is being freed of its clinging, possessive quality, and becoming much more of a tender feeling.

When this happens, another possibility emerges. The soul-mate quality in the relationship can develop into a deep friendship, within which you can free yourself from romantic expectations and the pain and genuinely wish the person well. This, of course, takes time and attentiveness to your own mind. I’d suggest working with your mind and heart through the following inner practices.

1) Set aside half an hour when you can be alone, in your room or in nature. Go into your heart center. Imagine this person is there with you, and say, as if to him, “I release you. I offer our relationship and the love I have for you to the universe.”

Stay with this thought or prayer until you feel a shift or release. There may be tears, emotional release, and pain. At some point, you should get a sense of letting go. It doesn’t have to be a big letting go–just a small release will do. Then, whenever youthink of him, have the thought, “I release you and our relationship to the universe.” Wish him the bestl. Send him loving kindness by saying or thinking, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free.” Whenever you wish him happiness, wish the same for yourself.

2) Along with this, I strongly suggest that you keep noticing the thoughts and fantasies that come up around this person. Practice seeing them as passing thoughts, instead of identifying with the thoughts and the patterns of feeling. Once you can see a thought as simply a thought–not necessarily a truth–the next step is to let it go. In Sanskrit, certain kinds of thoughts are called vikalpas, sometimes translated as dreams or fantasies. One vikalpa that really hooks us is the dream of the perfect love, the perfect relationship. If we identify with that fantasy, it can become an escape for us, a kind of alternate universe that we enter over and over again, effectively removing ourselves from inhabiting the places and situations of our ‘real’ lives. Fantasy keeps us out of the moment. When we practice the mantra, “If only I were with him, I’d be happy,” we keep making our happiness unreachable, unattainable, outside of ourselves, and outside the moment we are actually living. Working with the thoughts–noticing the thought arising, recognizing it as simply a thought, then letting it go–begins to break this pattern, and takes us back into our present.

Instant Love

Q: I recently attended a ten-day meditation retreat and I got to know another attendee. The last day, during a partner exercise, we looked into each other’s eyes and instantly fell in love. We’re both in long-term relationships with other people, and for both of us, this unexpected eruption of romance feels both compelling and destabilizing. I now find that it’s called my other relationship into question on all levels. What should I do?

A: Nearly everyone in the yoga world has, at one time or another, fallen into “Retreat Romance.” There’s a natural intimacy that comes from sharing the retreat space–the heart is open, and the mind has been focusing inward for several days, and is often longing for distraction. I’ve known many people who actually got married while in the throes of just such a spiritual romance. Some of these marriages work out; others explode when the couple moves out of the rarified atmosphere of a retreat or ashram and face their day-to-day differences.

The most important action you can take right now is to do nothing. For the next month, use this powerful eruption of feeling as a way to learn about yourself and to be fully present with whatever feelings arise. It’s common to avoid being present with strong emotions like love, fear, desire, sadness. Instead, you might find yourself fixating on the story you associate with the feelings. The stories might go like this: “This new lover is the love of my life, and I must leave my present partner to be with her,” “I’m a terrible person for having these feelings,” or, “If I could fall in love like this it means that my long-term relationship is flawed.”

Yet these stories are actually spins on reality, not necessarily the truth. Narratives about the meaning of an experience are often based on unconscious default settings, or ways of seeing the world that were picked up from one’s birth family and culture. Then, when you become a yogi, you may superimpose yogic principles and values on top of your old values. When you go through an emotional upheaval, you may find yourself caught between several competing narratives. The yogic ideal of detachment wars with the cultural ideal of romance; the desire for a new adventure fights with your wish for stability and the depth that comes with commitment. The conflict between these competing narratives can send you through endless mental loops, spinning between alternatives, feeling confused, fearful, and uncertain.

To complicate matters, your story about an experience can both define and direct your emotional response. If you feel a rush of anger at someone’s careless words, your interpretation of their motives and of your reaction will determine whether or not you get into a conflict with them. Likewise, if your heart melts one day while in someone’s company, you might interpret this feeling as a signal to pursue a romantic encounter or as confirmation of a friendship. The way you choose to interpret things will deeply affect the future of that encounter.

But when you put the story aside, emotions are simply emotions. At the heart of all these emotions is energy itself. Love is a particular kind of energy. Sadness is another. Anger is another. Each of these emotions has a characteristic felt-sense–perhaps a hardness in the heart or the gut for anger, a melting, rippling heat in the heart for love, a more sinking, heavy feeling through the chest for sadness.

In times of upheaval, one of the most powerful things you can do is to practice catching each wave of emotion as a felt sense in the body, without either acting on it or attaching to it. This is a kind of meditation practice. You keep bringing your attention into the sensation of the emotion in your body, just as you would bring your attention back to the breath again and again. You sit in the felt sense for as long as you can, noticing the stories and thoughts that arise, constantly bringing attention back to the present moment and the feeling of the emotion in your body. As you do this, the feeling will begin to change in some way. It might dissipate, or it might just lead to a different series of feelings. It’s in that gesture of learning to be with emotions as sensation and energy and letting them shift that you will begin to recognize the path you are meant to follow. Being present with the feeling of emotion without getting swept away in the story lets you act from a place of authentic instinct, rather than from the confusion and excitement of your stories about romance and betrayal.

Dream Lover

Q: I’m in a relationship but recently I’ve been attracted to an unsuitable younger man. For a while it served as a fantasy, making me feel vibrant and alive and enhancing my creativity, but now it is taking up too much of my conscious thought and energy. Can you help me rid myself of this obsessive fantasy?

A: You are intuitively recognizing the double-edged quality of romantic fantasy. Any sort of fantasy is distracting, removing you from being fully present in your life, and often covering issues that you need to resolve. But fantasies can also be a doorway into the mystical that yogis have used to recondition their inner world.

In other words, there’s a gift in romantic longing, if you can find a way to follow it past the personal and discover its deepest source. Romantic feelings compel us precisely because they can so powerfully connect us to the experience of unconditional love. In his book We, psychologist Robert Johnson goes so far as to argue that romantic love is displaced love for God, and certainly, the great romantic passions of life have a God-touched quality–one reason why Rumi’s poems about his love for Shams speak so deeply to us.

Narada’s Bhakti Sutras, the great text of Indian devotional literature, teaches that any human emotion we have can be a way to love God. God can be loved as a friend, as a parent, even as a child. But the sutras say that the most powerful form of devotional love is the romantic style of devotion, called madura bhakti (literally, ‘sweet devotion.’) The intensity and longing in romantic love creates a powerful fire in the heart. When that fire is turned inward, directed towards God, or towards the inner Self, then it can transform our character, open the heart, move us into great depths of surrender and adoration.

I’m telling you this as a prelude to suggesting a way to work with these fantasies. Essentially, there are two approaches to dealing with an impractical, potentially dangerous romantic passion. One is the way of discipline, self-inquiry, and renunciation–in other words, cutting off the fantasies when they arise. The other, more inclusive path is the way of the ancient yoga philosophy known as Tantra. Tantra asks you to focus deeply on the feelings behind the fantasies, and turn it toward its most essential expression: the pure feeling of longing for love which each of us has within us. This longing is activated by our connection to another, yet it is much larger than the other person. When we find it and follow it, that longing can lead us toward Essence itself.

Both approaches work, one by removing the fantasy, the other by moving into and through the fantasy to the longing at its core. By attending to the call of what you most deeply desire, your fantasies can become pointers rather than ends in themselves.

The way of discipline is the basic practice of interrupting thoughts and fantasies as you would do in meditation. You begin by making a decision that when the fantasies arise, you’ll interrupt them. You may have to do this again and again–perhaps every morning when you wake up. Remind yourself that you don’t want to go down the road of fantasy. Explain to yourself that these fantasies distract you, and that they ultimately cause suffering. Then, each time one comes up, imagine yourself offering it to a fire in your heart. Just keep offering the thoughts to the internal fire. This is an essential meditative discipline that helps break any kind of cognitive pattern.

To try the Tantric approach, begin by finding a quiet place to sit that’s free from distractions. Then spend some time bring up the fantasies. Fully feel the emotions and inner sensations aroused by your fantasy romance. The pure longing. The pure sexual intensity, if that is how it manifests. Try to feel the sensation deep inside the core of your body. Then bring the feeling up into the heart area and hold your attention there, feeling the emotion expand. Imagine it as light.

At this point, totally remove the image or the fantasy of your dream-lover. This is crucial. Instead, concentrate on the feeling state itself. Notice the flavors of it–perhaps aliveness, sadness, longing, heartache, love. Let yourself sit with the feeling state of the heart. Recognize that these are your feelings, your longings, your love. With that awareness, let the feeling state continue to shift and expand.

The result of this practice is the dawning recognition that what you are really after, what you really long for, is the felt state triggered by your romantic fantasies. The more you can touch the feeling state in your body, while letting go of the image that triggered it, the more you’ll begin to see that it is your own love, your own internally generated aliveness.

A second step might be to expand the feeling to include people other than your lover. Bring into your awareness the image of different people in your life–people whom you love, people whom you’re annoyed by, people who you’ve seen on TV or in the papers, people who are suffering, people who are sick, people who are happy and well. One by one, bring those people into your heart-space, and hold them there within the feeling-space you’ve created. Or, if it feels more natural, imagine yourself breathing the feeling state into those people. Let the romantic feeling spread to include as many others as you possibly can. Realize that the love you feel can be universal. When you allow your focused, personal affection to expand in that way, you can begin to recognize how many opportunities for loving there actually are in this world.

Take it one step further, and acknowledge the truth that is at the heart of the bhakti or devotional path: Inside your feeling is God. A feeling of love is God. Any feeling of love. Be aware that this feeling within you is divine presence.

These two practices, the Tantric and the basic mind discipline, both help the fantasies lose their stickiness. But the tantric approach can help you open your heart to love’s healing depths.

Will it Last?

Q: I’m in a relationship with a man with whom I’m deeply in love. Its beautiful, but for various reasons, I feel like it’s not going to last. How can I be in this relationship without constantly worrying about losing it?

A: There are three kinds of romantic relationships. The first is the classic, committed partnership, where the two of you agree to stay together and build a life. The second type of relationship is temporary, yet can be compelling, passionate, and loving as long as it lasts. The third kind of relationship is one where both partners have so much love and respect for each other that they commit to deep friendship, no matter what form the relationship takes in the future. In the third kind of relationship, you both recognize that even if it doesn’t keep going in its present shape, it will always transform in positive ways.

So, begin by asking yourself “What do I really want from this relationship? Do I believe that in order to be valid it should lead to marriage or long-term partnership? Can I see us taking our life journeys together? Can we go deeper in important ways? Do I feel understood and received by this person? Would I want to be with this person even after romantic love cools down?”

The answers you give yourself to these questions will determine how you hold the relationship. If you decide that it falls into the second category–a compelling but impermanent love affair–then your best approach is to kiss the moment as it flies, as William Blake famously said, and recognize the rare beauty and poignancy that can arise within a deeply felt but temporary relationship. After all, you can enjoy a party without expecting it to give you permanent happiness!

There’s mental discipline involved here. If you’re going to flourish in a short-term relationship, you’ll need to accept the basic concept of impermanence. Some people can’t comfortably do this. For others, it’s a great opportunity to examine old insecurities and assumptions about life.

You might also consider whether you and your lover have the potential for the third path by asking yourself, ‘Is this someone I’d like to know for the rest of my life, regardless of whether or not he is my lover?’ In other words, could the two of you look beyond the romance and commit to a friendship that could survive a breakup?

Even the best of lovers can’t always manage this kind of relationship. But if you have the openness for it, the third kind of relationship can lead to a radical experience of unconditional love and gratitude. Even if romantic love doesn’t last–which, lets face it, it usually doesn’t–the friendship that can arise when two people have known each other as lovers is a gift of infinite preciousness, one of the true gifts of human incarnation.

Sally Kempton is one of today’s most innovative spiritual teachers. Drawing from more than 30 years of practice and teaching, (including 20 years as a swami in one of the traditional Indian Saraswati orders) she has a gift for bringing transformative insight to the questions facing contemporary seekers. She is author of the groundbreaking meditation book The Heart of Meditation: Pathways to a Deeper Experience (published under her monastic name Swami Durgananda), one of the teachers at the Integral Spiritual Center, and writes the “Wisdom” column for Yoga Journal.

© Copyright 2008. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Date Last Modified: 2/21/08

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