Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Preliminary Observations on Integral Relationship, Part Three

[From Osho Zen Tarot: "The Lovers"]

[Reading part one and part two might help this make a little more sense, but not necessarily.]

Part Three: Doing the Work

I promised an attempt to describe integral relationship from the inside, or at least to describe what it feels like to work toward integral relationship. This will necessarily be less of an argument than it is a meditation on the nature of romantic love as a spiritual path.

I must state up front that I do not pretend to know what an integral relationship IS--only what Kira and I are trying to do that might contribute to creating an integral relationship.

First, I firmly believe that all integral practice must have a relationship element, whether it is romantic, platonic, deep friendship, or something else. We discover so much about ourselves in relation to others. It has taken me years to learn this lesson. I recently came across a book by Christian de Quincey, Radical Knowing, that argues the following:

We are not who we think we are. Instead, we are what we feel. Giving disciplined attention to feelings reveals the most fundamental fact of life and reality: We are our relationships. Most of us think we are individuals first and foremost who then come together to form relationships. De Quincey turns this "obvious fact" on its head and shows that relationship comes first, and that our individual sense of self--our "private" consciousness--actually arises from shared consciousness. (From the publisher's blurb at their website.)
I'm not sure I fully agree that we are what we feel, especially considering that emotions tend to drop away at higher stages of consciousness, but his thesis applies in the lower levels of consciousness and is the foundation of Western psychology. I look forward to reading the book.

We are our relationships. Yet we live in different bodies, have different thoughts and different needs, and at nearly any moment in a relationship the two people involved are not likely to share the same feelings. In this difference is the beauty and pain of loving another human being.

In fact, each partner is likely to "push the buttons" of the other from time to time in ways that seem almost unbearable. This is when relationship is doing its true work on us. Psyche chooses for us the partner who can help us complete the next stage of our growth. In every intimate relationship, the other person will be able to expose our raw spots in ways we dread and would do anything to prevent. We can be stripped bare by a look, a word, or anything that pokes at our wounding. Our psyche has been drawn to this other person because he or she has this horrible power. Sometimes it's a lifetime deal, and most of us certainly go into relationship with the hope that we will find that person.

I always hold that intention in my relationships, while also knowing that I have no control over the needs of my partner, and she has no control over what my psyche may pull me toward. When Kira and I first were together, we experienced some difficulty over this issue. She liked to talk about and plan the future, while I could never promise anything more than my intention to build a long-term, healthy relationship with her. Since then we have settled into an awareness that we both intend authentic intimacy, a nurturing compassion for the other, and a commitment to each other's growth that allows for the possibility that we may one day separate. We both hope that never happens.

The hard part of relationship, once you know that it may not last forever (and as a Buddhist, impermanence is the only truth), is finding the strength to open yourself and be vulnerable to this other person. This is the authentic intimacy I mentioned. It requires that we make every effort to know our minds and our shadows with as much detail as humanly possible. Meditation practice, journaling, therapy, shadow work, subpersonality work, and art therapy are all good ways to do this kind of exploration. It's important that we hold this as part of our own quest for wholeness and not do it simply for the relationship or because the other person wants us to be more in touch with our emotions. Again, this is a lesson I had to learn the hard way.

It isn't enough to love our partner and intend to be vulnerable with him or her. Being vulnerable requires that we be fierce in our exploration of self and then be able to share that with our partner. Vulnerability is not my strength. I have to work hard in therapy, on my own, and with Kira to feel safe being that open. I think many men might feel the same way. I have a long way to go before I will feel capable of creating authentic intimacy in any kind of advanced way. Many days it's simply baby steps.

Which brings me to the idea of nurturing compassion. For some people, it's easier to be compassionate with our own weaknesses than it is to be that way with our partner. For others, like me, it's easier to be compassionate with our partner than it is to feel that softness for ourselves. Either way, relationship gives us the opportunity to work on our ability to be compassionate.

I am working on turning the compassion I find so easy to share with Kira toward myself. I have a harsh inner critic that drives me to be a perfectionist. I have little compassion for my mistakes and my weaknesses. My clinging to ego is powerful here, so part of my integral practice is finding ways to hold for myself the same compassion I find so easy to extend to Kira.

Compassion is a second-tier form of love--it is love at its highest level. If our love moves into the second tier, we begin to see how it evolves along the Spiral from purely physical procreation, to physical pleasure, to sexual love, to emotional intimacy expressed in our physicality, to union of archetypal opposites, to pure compassion.

In feeling compassion, the individual ego begins to drop away. In pure compassion we have transcended ego. This can be a part of romantic love--physical love-making can be a transcendent experience. I have had brief tastes of this state, but I look forward to more in-depth experiences.

Lastly, I want to mention the idea of the relationship as a separate entity. I have no idea if other people talk about this or practice it in some way--or if it is even a healthy thing to do. Kira and I are individuals first and foremost--we both reject the kind of merging energy that some couples engage in, a first-tier attempt to transcend ego. We do not believe that we complete each other or are two halves of one whole. We are each whole people (as much as we are able to be) who have come together in relationship.

As whole people, we hold our relationship as a unique, separate entity in which we participate. It has its own rhythms, needs, energies, and drives. It seeks higher forms of expression just as we do. It has needs that must be met just as we do. It has ebbs and flows of energies just as we do. And we must be aware of when the relationship is experiencing a disconnection of some sort--when one or both of us has unplugged from the relationship. This happens and is nothing to fear, but it must be addressed when it happens. Addressing a disconnection looks a lot like a fight.

When we fight, and all couples must be able to fight (fairly) if they hope to have a healthy relationship, we both try to hold in our hearts that we must face the pain in ourselves in order to work through the issues that generated the fight. The relationship depends on it. We both bring our own issues to the relationship. For the relationship to thrive and grow, we must be willing to face those weaknesses or wounds in ourselves when they threaten the relationship. But we must want to make ourselves healthier first and foremost. The health of the relationship follows from that.

Having reached this point, I feel like I've said all I can say. I welcome comments and the opportunity to dialogue on this topic. I do not in any way believe Kira and I have all the answers to how integral relationship should look and feel, but we both are seeking that higher form of relationship with each other. If there are comments that spark new ideas, I will post another entry on this topic. I also welcome anyone else who feels they have something to contribute on this topic to drop me a note--we can discuss a guest post.

See my Further Observations.

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